Is It Okay to Eat Foods Past Their Expiration Dates?

This weekend I was pouring a little half-and-half into my cup of coffee (no, not Folgers) when I noticed something extremely disturbing: the creamer was 34 days beyond the expiration date printed on the carton top.

Yes, 34 days. I know.

Of course, the first thought that immediately crossed my mind was: You idiot!

Considering that I was on my third cup of the day, the next thought that popped into my head was: Maybe I should call 9-1-1.

Then again, maybe not.

Once I regained my composure, I realized that this was the same “expired” half-and-half I had been pouring into my coffee for over a month without any repercussions.

In fact, upon further reflection, my first two cups of coffee that morning tasted absolutely delicious. I certainly noticed no sign of curdling when I poured the half-and-half into my coffee either.

Even so, I still wasn’t convinced my creamer was good.

So I opened the carton back up and took a sniff; the half-and-half still smelled fresh.

Then I took a taste; it tasted almost as fresh as the day I bought it on, um, well … let me take an action item and get back to you on that.

So what’s going on here? I always figured most companies probably built a little safety margin into their expiration dates to protect dummies like me — but 34 days?

It made me wonder just how many people are wasting their hard-earned money tossing out perfectly good food because they take expiration dates at face value.

An Expiration Date Primer

According to StillTasty, a website food-storage guide, not all expiration dates in the US are created equally.

It turns out that the only products that should always be eaten before the date on a label are the ones with an “Expires on” mark. Otherwise, it becomes a judgment call.

For example, perishables have “Sell by” dates that only indicate how long a store can keep a particular product on the shelf. StillTasty notes that even if you buy ground beef on the “Sell by” expiration date, you can safely store it in a refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Properly-stored pasteurized milk typically lasts five to seven days after the date on the carton. Even better, if the product is ultra-pasteurized, it can last much longer than that; a quick check of the label verified that’s why my half-and-half lasted as long as it did.

Then there are “Use by,” “Best if used by,” “Best by,” and “Best before” dates, which are not safety dates at all. Instead, they are quality dates US manufacturers voluntarily provide for shelf-stable items such as ketchup and mustard to indicate when consumers may begin to notice otherwise harmless changes in flavor, color or texture.

Some products, like canned vegetables can survive long past their listed dates; an unopened can of corn, for example, can last as long as five years if properly stored.

Others, like diet cola begin degrade relatively quickly if they’re still on the shelf beyond their recommended expiration date.

Some products can last almost indefinitely under the right conditions. These so-called “sturdy staples” include honey, rice, hard liquor, maple syrup, distilled white vinegar, cornstarch, salt, sugar, and non-artificial pure vanilla extract.

Of course, fresh conventional and organic fruits and vegetables have no expiration dates at all. But there are tricks you can use to extend their shelf life. For example, StillTasty recommends storing bananas at room temperature until they become ripe, and then putting them in the refrigerator to extend their shelf life. Just don’t panic when you notice the refrigerated banana skins turning black; the fruit will remain unaffected.

I love homegrown tomatoes. They’ll reach their maximum flavor and juiciness if you keep them out of the refrigerator until they are fully ripened. And StillTasty notes that you can then extend their shelf life an additional few days by placing them in a plastic bag and refrigerating them.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, there are many factors that determine how long products will remain fresh and safe to eat including location and storage temperature — colder storage temps and dry locations usually prolong product freshness.

Remember: most product expiration dates are only meant to be guidelines. So next time, instead of taking those expiration dates literally, let your senses be your guide. You may just avoid throwing away perfectly good food — and save a little money too.

Photo Credit: Ashley Davidson

56 comments to Is It Okay to Eat Foods Past Their Expiration Dates?

  • tracee

    the real question is did you keep drinking it in your coffee the rest of the day?

  • Libby

    It amazes me how people don’t actually comprehend what they read on the label! I cannot tell you how many times I have explained to people (mostly those of my own family) that “best by” and “sell by” dates are NOT expiration dates. Thanks for writing this article.

  • CandiO

    Yup my half and half routinely lasts for 2 weeks or so past the expiration date.

  • As the meat we eat almost exclusively is marked down (usually $1, $2, or $3) because it’s on or within a day of the “sell by” date, I’m very pleased to learn more about this topic!

    • Len Penzo

      Stick with me, Kurt. I’ve got a million other hot tips to share with ya!

      Well … maybe not a million. But almost.

  • I only care about the expiration dates of specific things like milk and meat. Other items I have no problem eating them way past their expiry dates. I just give it a quick sniff and insure it looks fine. Something like sour cream seems to be fine a good month past the expiry date. I just make sure there’s no mold.

  • Perhaps the bigger question is why do you still have something that long? Is the package or size so big it lasts that long? Was the savings on the larger size worth it? If not, you should buy a smaller size.

    • Len Penzo

      I only use the half-and-half for my coffee — and I don’t use a lot. Normally, the carton is empty within a week or so of the expiration date. In this case, for whatever reason, it wasn’t.

      In any case, it’s kind of a moot point considering how long the half-and-half lasts!

  • Allyn

    Milk can still be used for cooking once it has soured. We never throw milk or cream away in our house.

    Any discussion on consumable expiration dates should include the mention of bottled water. The only reason bottled water has a date on it is because of New Jersey’s law requiring expiration dates on all consumable products, including water. Rather than stamp the bottles to be sold just in New Jersey, the water companies stamp all their bottles and then don’t have to worry which lots get shipped to NJ and which don’t. This is a prime example that dates may not be intended to indicate safety.

    Also, Len, add wheat berries to your “sturdy staples” list. Wheat berries kept in cool, dry storage will keep indefinitely. It’s only after the berries are ground into flour that it becomes perishable. (And yes, some of us still grind our own flour.)

    • Len Penzo

      So true, Allyn. There are many people who purposely cook with sour milk — especially in places where it is hard to get their hands on citrus fruits that would otherwise be used to impart a bit of tartness to a dish.

      I’ve also heard about the NJ law that screwed things up for all the other states. lol (I was never sure if that was a legend or the truth though.)

  • Againstthegrain

    Hmmm, in general I accept your point about food dating (esp for unopened items).

    But, and it’s a big BUT, I make it a point to avoid sterile “bomb-shelter” food to begin with, so expiration and best-by dates aren’t that much of an issue for my family’s food, most of which doesn’t even have much packaging, let alone dates.

    I think it’s wise to be skeptical of foods that even insects and even microbes ignore. Processed foods have all the attractive and nutritious compounds removed so that they remain shelf-stable, often long after opening.

    If a food won’t entice bugs* that cause spoilage, what food value is there for me and my family? I think this is a very important point that convenience addicted consumers overlook. It really begs the question, are bugs that ignore processed and denatured foods smarter than we are?

    Whenever possible, I try to choose food that “will spoil, but will be consumed long before the food spoils” – or we else take advantage of controlled natural processes that prolong freshness or even enhance the value of foods, such as fermentation and culturing, as in traditional sauerkraut pickling, cured sausages, and cheese making. That’s how food was preserved for use past the harvest – before industrial technology centralized, standardized, cheapened, and sped up the processes in huge factories.

    * bugs meaning insects or bacteria, but heat, light, and oxygen exposure also spoil foods by causing toxic rancidity.

  • I normally eat/drink items after any date but never knew how long I could drink/eat them for. Thanks for this great info. Now I’ll have to send my girlfriend here so she believes me :)

  • My father has been eating food past its expiration date for years. I always thought it was because he had a stomach of steel!

  • Thanks for the Still Tasty link!

    I remember back in college Budweiser started putting the born on date on their products. I had a roomate who took that to heart and once went out and bought a new case of Bud Light becasue the ones in the fridge had an old born on date. However, when he got home he realized that the freshly bought case had an older born on date then the stuff already in fridge. Amazingly, all of the sudden the beer in the fridge didn’t taste so bad!

  • Well, this is certainly something worth pondering. Personally, I don’t have stuff going beyond the expiration date because I make sure that the food supplies we stock are just enough for a period of time. If ever this happens to me, I won’t quick to throw it. I’ll check to see online if any possible harm can happen to me for ingesting a supposedly expired food or if there is a leeway.

  • I can attest that old soda and old beer taste skunky.

    I check can condition on older canned items-vegetables,tomato sauce etc, if there are any dents, throw it away, regardless of dates-botulism is bad stuff.

    Hard liquor….hmmm I’ve been trying to do an experiment on shelf life for 25 years, but nothing ever seems to last long enough to do a taste test comparison.
    Why is that Len?

  • This exactly what I do, when something is beyond the expiration daye, I let my tastes judge… I have many times eaten yogurt which was “expired” and it’s always still ok! And maybe sometimes it’s around 34 days like you. hahaha.
    Just the other day, one of my flatmates said to me: “I’m throwing this yogurt away because it’s beyond its expiration date and I explained all this to her, so she didn’t throw it away at the end! :)

    Hugs and kisses to the family!

    Nona.

    • Len Penzo

      I’m not afraid of “expired” yogurt either, Nona. I used to eat it all the time.

      Y muchos besos a ti tambien! :-)

  • Jambalaya

    You should mention honey. Pure honey (not adulterated with corn syrup or other additives) never expires.

  • Jerome

    German television had a 2 hour special on how long food keeps, and in the show they actually ate meat from 25 year old tin cans. It apparently tasted soapy but was perfectly safe to eat. Their conclusion was that if it smells ok, it is fine to eat.
    They also compared vitamin content of frozen, canned and fresh vegetables by actually measuring it. The highest level of vitamins were found in fresh vegetables but only if used directly after harvesting, second best was frozen vegetables, than came the tinned vegetables and than came fresh vegetables from the supermarket AND from a biological grocer. Vegetables loose vitamins very rapidly when in fresh state. Their conclusion: for almost everybody frozen vegetables are best, and canned vegetables are a ok. Only buy fresh vegetables if they are really fresh and where you know that you will use them the same day.

  • Erin

    I have heard that pancake / biscuit / cake mix can be very dangerous to eat after expiring. Some people have had allergic reactions to the mold and has been fatal. Thought it wouldn’t hurt to share! :)

  • I would say that it depends on how long after the expiration did you take it and what kind of food it is. Usually the expiration date has an allowance so there’s really no need to worry.

  • Hank

    I never throw out food that has passed its expiry date. I will comsume it even if has gone bad provided that the taste is not too disgusting. I have been doing this for 50 years, and I have never been sick, not even a cold. I can even drink the tap water in countries like Haiti or Mexico without any problems whatsoever.

  • Eric

    It’s not an ‘expiration date’ it’s a ‘pull date’. It is primarily for the retailer It is NOT the date the product ‘expires’. I’m really disappointed that the writer did not do more research. Food is not good on one date and ‘expired’ the next.

    • Len Penzo

      Hold on, Eric. There are indeed cases — rare, but they exist — with no-kidding “expiration” dates. Does the food magically go bad after the date? Who knows for sure, but if a merchant insists on marking the product in such a way as to indemnify itself, why would you take the risk? Otherwise, as you say, it is truly a judgment call. Which is what I wrote in the article: It turns out that the only products that should always be eaten before the date on a label are the ones with an ‘Expires on’ mark. Otherwise, it becomes a judgment call.

  • I’ve occasionally done it but I try to cook fresh foods as much as possible. I know it’s insurance for my health and it leads to savings. I have to buy some processed foods but not a lot.

  • Sally

    Excellent article!

  • patty veloz

    ok so yesterday there was this great sale on big boxes of Velveeta $1.99 !! but the expiration date was the same day i was gonna buy it my BF says no way we can eat that much and is it safe … what do you think? its cheese i thought with cheese and that fake cheese you can just cut off the rotted parts anyone?

    • Len Penzo

      I’d go for it, Patty. I’ve eaten Velveeta past the use-by date. No big deal. However, I’d probably make sure I use the Velveeta immediately after opening it — that is, I wouldn’t use some then refrigerate the rest.

  • Cammie

    This was very helpful! I had 1/2 and 1/2 that I didn’t know was “expired” 2/12/13 and being that it is now 4/5/13 I was just going to dump it down the drain. However when I opened it I noticed it smelled fresh, didn’t have any lumps that typically form when milk products goes bad, and tasted the way it should! I think this is because it was in the very back if the fridge where it is super cold. Anyway, being pregnant I am overly cautious, and thought I would google it to see if I was just being paranoid. However I found several other credible sources saying the same thing you are saying here and now I don’t have to waste a trip to the store for some creamer!!!

  • JoeTaxpayer

    My sister and I had this conversation. She throws things out after a few days. I asked her about artichoke hearts, packed in oil, in a jar. 5 days she told me. I had the remains of a Costco-sized jar from 18 months prior, served at a holiday party, then forgotten in the back of the fridge. I tasted them, still fine.
    Most food will either get moldy or smell pretty awful if it turns bad.

  • M. Dianne

    What if there’s only a DATE on the packaging without a preceding reference?

  • cris

    I stored lots of chocolates to send for my family in my country…just now i checked them again and surprised to see that half of them are expired already last january…is it safe to eat them?

  • cris

    They still look good…i dont wanna throw them..it cost me too much. I just wanna know if its still be ok to eat them?

    • Len Penzo

      I’ve eaten some pretty old chocolate before (stuff like year-old Halloween candy) and I’m still here. A couple months past the date seems pretty safe to me … but I’m not an expert. Like everything else in life, ultimately you’ll need to make your own decision, cris. :-)

  • odi

    hi! but my mother stores sauces that are two years old. is that alright? and she insists it lasts beyond the expiration date! two years is a bit too much even if they are properly refrigerated? thanks!

  • GRS

    I took some Tylenol at my father’s house the other day, and I laughed so hard when I noticed the expiration date was 1990.
    They worked just fine.

    I was also stunned to watch him eat a muffin that had white fuzz mold ALL over it. Amazingly it didn’t make him ill. I think this is quite common among the elderly. I now check all his food regularly when he’s not looking.

  • Aleeta

    What about granola bars? They taste old and are hard after expiration date. I ate one and it felt like razor blades passing. The expired date was June 2013 and I ate it last month (August)before noticing the date. The oats and grains tasted funny to me. I was told the food was still ok to eat 3 months pass the date. Is it a good idea to pay for expired date food? I get Meals on Wheels and pay a small amount for each meal and for the weekend meals are usually organic cereal and fruit wraps and stix which expired in May and June of this year.

    Aleeta

  • Jessica K

    Hi
    this article was helpful but i wanted to ask does anyone know a simple experiment to test if a food is stil ediable?? This is my goal for the science expo in my school.Can anyone please help?

    • Len Penzo

      Jessica: The simplest experiment I know of that will indicate if food is still edible is to … use your senses! In other words: smell and taste it! If it has a bad or unappetizing smell, or if it tastes bad (for example, sour milk) then it is probably no good.

      You can also use your sense of sight. Visual cues will tell you if the food is rotting, or is getting moldy (although some mold — like the mold in bleu cheese — is edible).

      Hope that helps!

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Question of the Week:

Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...