According to the USDA, dating is voluntary and reflects when the producer believes the food will be at optimal quality, not when it will spoil. This is why vanilla, sugar, and honey—items that essentially last forever—still have expiration dates.
Many consumers don’t understand that expiration dates are conservative and arbitrary, leading them to routinely waste food. In addition to its environmental cost, routine food waste leaves money on the table, straining the already-tight grocery budgets of so many in our communities.
Food waste occurs when we trust expiration dates and distrust our bodily powers of deduction. In The Food Shift Kitchen, instead of blindly adhering to expiration dates, we engage our senses to check freshness, assessing appearance, smell, feel, and taste. You can do the same in your home kitchen (download the Deciphering Dates on Products guide to learn what all the different terms mean).
In addition to helping you make the most of your groceries, learning the sensory signs of spoilage will help you build a closer relationship to the ingredients you work with. Look for mold or dramatic color changes, but distinguish that from slight browning, which is natural. Feel around for soft spots that should be cut out and use your sense of taste to pick up any “off” flavors. Use the smell test to detect metallic or chemical odors in long-lasting products like flour or oil.
Note: one exception is baby food, as the expiration date indicates when the product’s nutrients depreciate. Since those nutrients are critical to young children’s health and growth, heed the listed expiration date.
Learn more about Food Shift and their programs to rescue surplus food that would otherwise waste away in landfills and utilize it to fuel their social enterprise kitchen.