Eggs, canned soup, and condiments are fridge and pantry essentials that all carry a best before tag somewhere on their label.
That in itself creates confusion for consumers: there’s a difference between best before dates and expiration dates, each label telling us dissimilar information.
“It’s confusing,” says Ellie Topp, a professional home economist. “[The best before] date has nothing to do with the safety of the food. It has everything to do with the taste of the food.”
That’s probably news to you, isn’t it? There’s even more to expiration and best before dates than you realize – here are a few other tidbits you may not be aware of.
Only Five Types of Foods Have Expiry Dates
Expiry dates are exactly what they sound like: informing customers the absolute last day that food is safe to consume. Any products past the expiry should be tossed; never take a risk on expired food for any reason, even if it’s frozen or ‘looks okay’.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency only stipulates five types of products require an expiry date label:
- Baby formula and other human milk substitutes.
- Nutritional supplements.
- Meal replacements.
- Pharmacist-sold foods for very low-energy diets.
- Formulated liquid diets.
Conversely, best before dates are reserved for foods that will only be fresh for 90 days or less. Some best before labelled foods can be consumed past the suggested date, the main difference between an expiry date.
Best Before Dates=Freshness
A best before date’s main purpose is telling consumers how long that food will remain flavourful maintain its nutritional value. Remember, best before dates are unrelated to food safety.
“[With some products] the taste may have greatly deteriorated, but it’s still safe to eat,” Topp says.
For example, when preparing a fresh egg, Topp says it will stay close in “a nice, little package.” Breaking an egg past the best before date in comparison will spread out more, and the yolk is more likely to fall apart.
“But, there’s nothing wrong with the egg,” she says, “as long as it’s not cracked.”
Once a best before date is reached, the manufacturer’s nutritional claims no longer hold water, so you may not be getting as much vitamin C from expired orange juice, for example. Other foods may have their taste compromised, but again is still safe to consume. Ketchup and salsas may taste slightly more acidic, dry pasta could crumble when cooked, and old cookies may be stale or just plain awful.
Opening the Package Nullifies a Best Before Date
Health Canada states a best before date is nullified once the package is opened, or if the food is frozen. Once a package is exposed to air, there’s a chance of cross-contamination, which the original best before label obviously didn’t factor in their suggested date.
The Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education has a chart breaking down how long different foods should be kept in a fridge or freezer. The organization recommends purchasing foods with short fridge lives that you can eat fast, avoiding best before or expiry dates concerns altogether.
Foods to Watch Out For…
While we did say some foods are still edible post-best before date, possibly lacking taste or nutrition, that rule doesn’t apply to all foods. It goes without saying that any food that doesn’t maintain its original colour or smell should be tossed, as should dented, leaking, or bulging cans of anything.
Cured meats are one food to keep an eye on, as well as mouldy cheese, breads, and yogurts. Many people are comfortable with scraping the mouldy areas off and snacking on the remains, but mould can contaminate the entire product beyond what’s visible to the eye.
People shouldn’t mess around with foods that contain plentiful pathogens either. That includes fresh meats like chicken, steak, and ground beef, as well as dairy products.
“It’s like playing roulette,” says Cathy Paroschy Harris, a dietitian and spokeswoman for Dietitians of Canada. “You’re putting yourself at risk.”
To simplify everything, use your best judgment. Or when it doubt, throw it out!
Frozen Veggies Are Better in the Winter
Who ever said fresh was synonymous with better?
Fresh produce in your local grocery store during the frigid months could contain less nutrition than your year-round, frozen alternatives. It takes several weeks for those ‘fresh’ veggies to be picked and transported. By the time it reaches the grocer, a lot of nutritional value may’ve been depleted.
Frozen vegetables on the other hand, are frozen within hours of being collected. This helps the produce retain its nutrition. While the nutritional difference isn’t night and day, it’s certainly the healthier of the options come wintertime.