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Food Speak: Learning What Expiration Terms Really Mean

You head into the supermarket to buy some food for the family, and after surfing through the fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s time to make your way into the middle aisles. You grab a few goodies, hit the dairy section, followed by the meat and off you go.

When you get home you notice that there are many different dates on the different products, which is to be expected. But then you realize that they’re not all labeled with “use by” dates. In fact, most of the products say something different entirely. What’s the difference between expiration dates, sell-by dates, use-by dates and any number of other labels? Good question. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the most common labels and what they mean.

Use by – The most common safety label, the “use by” date is typically found on dairy products and things that will spoil. If not “used by” this date the product is no longer guaranteed to taste and feel the way it was meant to.

Sell by – This is a retailing label that is typically used by grocery stores to indicate when a product should be pulled from the shelf. It does not necessarily denote spoilage but rather gives the grocer a good idea as to when the product should come down.

Best if used by – The word “best” is the key in this one. Basically it means that the product will taste and feel as it was meant to up until this date. This is a quality monitor, not a safety date.

Guaranteed fresh until – Not unlike the “best if used by” label, this one also refers to quality and is typically used for baked goods like bread. Given the date it was made and the packaging, the retailer has a pretty good idea as to how long it will be fresh, hence the “guaranteed fresh until” date. After that date, the product will most likely begin to degrade or not taste as fresh as it could’ve a week ago.

These are the most common labels found on food products and hopefully they seem a little less intimidating now. However, you should still rely on your senses in times of doubt and the old tried and true sniff test still works wonders.

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