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Food Expiration Dates: What Do They Really Mean?

First Posted: 05/24/2012 9:18 am   Updated: 08/31/2012 10:48 am

Some of us adhere to them with religious severity and others use them as an insignificant suggestion, but either way, expiration dates are mysterious. They seem to suggest that we should stay far away from foods marked with a calendar date that's passed, but is that what they really mean?

According to the USDA, expiration dates are not a safety date. However, the USDA does recommend that if a product has a "use-by" date, you should follow that date. They also define the different expiration terminology. The "Sell-By" date suggests you buy the product before the printed date, but it doesn't indicate that the product has spoiled. And the "Best if Used By" date suggests consuming that product before the date for optimal quality.

But the amount of time an item stays safe to eat largely depends on how it is stored, not how long it's been produced for. Milk kept in the fridge will unquestionably last significantly longer than milk left out on the kitchen counter.

And since "more than three-quarters of U.S. consumers mistakenly believe certain foods are unsafe to eat after the expiration date has passed," reports The Boston Globe, we feel that it's time to get the facts straight. Don't waste your money by throwing out foods with expired dates. Click through the slideshow below to see how long common grocery store items remain safe to eat.

The information for the life span of food items was found on StillTasty.com. If curious about the expiration dates on other products, visit their site for more information.

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  • Ketchup

    Ketchup will maintain its quality for six months in the fridge. It's still safe to eat after this date (unless it has developed an off odor or mold appears). Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/doobybrain/213828192/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: doobybrain</a>.

  • Olive OIl

    Olive oil can stay fresh for 18-24 months either in or out of the fridge. It is recommended that you keep it in a cool dark place -- and refrigeration is suggested if you live in warm climates. Most times, you will have long finished the oil before it comes even close to perishing. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bhamsandwich/4665992253/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: bhamsandwich</a>.

  • Eggs, Raw In The Shell

    Eggs stay good for 3-5 weeks in the refrigerator and up to one year in the freezer (note: it's not recommended to freeze them in their shell). Eggs will normally keep long past the sell-by date; but to ensure that they last as long as possible avoid storing them in the refrigerator door -- the coolest part of the fridge is best. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ambernectar/3803765911/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Ambernectar 13</a>.

  • Milk, Pasteurized

    Milk will stay good one week past the sell by date, and three months in the freezer. But of course, if milk has developed on off odor or flavor, it's best to discard it. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/loop_oh/3030317020/sizes/o/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: loop_oh</a>.

  • Yogurt

    You have a 7-10 day window after the sell by date to enjoy your yogurt, (and one to two months if stored in the freezer.) But if mold appears, discard the yogurt. And if it was frozen, it's best to thaw it in the fridge. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lovemaegan/4483171610/sizes/o/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: ...love Maegan</a>.

  • Mayonnaise

    Don't throw it out just yet! An open jar of refrigerated mayonnaise is safe and good for consumption up to 2-3 months after the marked expiration date. And even then, the product may still be safe to eat, it just might begin to change in terms of texture and color. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/clango/487259906/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: clango</a>.

  • Peanut Butter

    An open jar of peanut butter will remain fresh up to three months in the pantry. After that point, it's recommended to store the peanut butter in the fridge (where it can maintain its quality for another 3-4 months). If you don't refrigerate, oil separation may occur. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/cantoni/6398248857/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: brianc</a>.

  • Pickles

    Pickles, once opened, stay good for a whole year in the refrigerator. So if you've just come across a jar in your fridge, chances are, they're still delicious. Same goes for brine-packed jars of olives and capers. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ejchang/4823204395/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: sleepyneko</a>.

  • Soy Milk

    Despite what you might think, soy milk has a similar self life to regular milk. It lasts about 7-10 days after the date indicated on the carton. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/theimpulsivebuy/5180297645/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: theimpulsivebuy</a>.

  • Sour Cream

    Sour cream is a tough food item to judge, since it's supposed to have a slightly soured taste. It can keep two weeks, tightly covered, in the fridge. And unlike most other dairy products, it doesn't freeze well. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mogula/6987170303/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr: limin_chiu</a>.

  • Vinegar

    The shelf-life of vinegar is almost indefinite <a href="http://www.versatilevinegar.org/faqs.html">according to versatilevinegar.com</a>. Aesthetic changes such as color or the development of sediment may occur in non-white vinegars over time, but the product is still safe to use. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/felishumanus/484150776/sizes/o/in/photostream">Flickr: felishmanus</a>

  • Honey

    Even more so than vinegar, honey's quality remains unchanged over time. The low water content and high acidic level makes the food an unfavorable breeding ground for bacteria, in spite of its sugary nature. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/cygnus921/3712930982/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: cygnus921</a>

  • Mustard

    When purchased at a store, mustard lasts anywhere from one to two years past its expiration date. This variation is due to differing storage methods -- when left unopened in the pantry, mustard lasts an extra year. Homemade mustard doesn't have the same shelf life, and expires much more quickly. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lifeontheedge/2316757256/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: Marshall Astor - Food Fetishist</a>

  • Almond Milk

    Just like milk and soy milk, almost milk lasts 7-10 days past its printed date, unless it's stored unopened in the pantry, in which case this beverage can stay good up to a month after. <strong>Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/aarongustafson/123422518/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Flickr: Aaron Gustafson</a></strong>

  • Whipped Cream

    Canned whipped cream can last up to three months past its printed date, whereas Cool Whip only lasts about 7-10 days. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/5159788513/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: stevedepolo</a>

  • Butter

    Plain ol' butter lasts about 2 weeks after its expiration date; Butter with olive oil lasts about a week more than that. Stick butter in the freezer and it can last up to 9 months longer. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sionakaren/3871517484/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: Siona Karen</a>

  • Half and Half

    Once opened, half and half, and all other liquid creams, last about 5-7 days after their expiration date. Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/greencolander/1463911167/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: Greencolander</a>

  • Coffee

    An open container of ground coffee will last 3 to 5 months past the best before date, whereas coffee beans will last up to 6 months. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/epsos/8097327748/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: EpSos.de</a>

  • Pasta

    Dry pasta may seem to have an infinite shelf life. It doesn't, but it has quite a long one -- It'll last 1-2 years past the best before date. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan_h/4201489578/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: Duncan H</a>

  • Deli meat

    Packaged lunch meats last about 7-10 days longer than the best by date, whereas fresh meats will last around 5-6 days. Salami and pepperoni last much longer -- around 2-3 weeks. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuart_spivack/67351962/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: stu_spivack</a>

  • Syrup

    Syrup may get thicker or darker when it gets older -- it may even crystalize. But it is never technically "spoiled." Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/26085795@N02/4173693000/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: jemasmith</a>

  • Tea

    Whether your tea leaves are packaged or loose, they'll last anywhere from 6 months to a year past their expiration date. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tenderisthebridge/269425312/sizes/l/in/photostream/">Flickr: Scout Seventeen</a>

  • Spices

    With the exception of mint, which has a slightly shorter shelf life, most spices from cinnamon to cayenne pepper last 2-3 years past their expiration date. Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/crobj/5519129659/sizes/z/in/photostream/">Flickr: srqpix</a>

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