Science Says You're Definitely Not The Only One Who's Confused By Food Expiration Dates

Last time I went grocery shopping, I wandered by the sushi station to see if there were any fresh rolls to soothe my seaweed craving. There was one more package of avocado hand rolls, which I was about to add to my cart, until I noticed the date on the package's sticker. The "best by" date was the day before, which made me wonder whether that actually meant best by, or if this day-old grocery store sushi might make me sick. Seriously, how can you tell if expiration dates are accurate? According to a new survey, I'm not the only one scratching my head every time I look at a food date label, so if you're in the same boat as I am, rest assured, a lot of people seem to be a bit lost on the whole thing.

For the survey, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future surveyed more than 1,000 adults to find out how consumers feel about food date labels and whether that information actually affects their decisions when it comes to purchasing and eating food. According to a press release from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the results of the survey, which have been published in the journal Waste Management, showed that 84 percent of people discard food that's nearing its expiration date “at least occasionally," while 37 percent of those surveyed said they “always” or “usually” throw away food when it's about to expire.

Interestingly enough, the survey participants' responses indicated that people between 18 and 34 years old, compared to older participants, are especially likely to rely on food date labels to help them figure out when to throw something away — again, you and I clearly aren't the only confused people out there, so that's comforting, I guess?

What's more, the survey found that more than 50 percent of respondents believed (incorrectly) that expiration date labels are or might be federally regulated, per the study's press release.

While the language around food date labels still isn't federally regulated, the latest study's press release explains that the industry has recently adopted a more standardized meaning behind "best by" and "use by" labels. Basically, a "best if used by" label refers to "dates after which quality may decline but the products may still be consumed," while "use by" labels are "restricted to the relatively few foods where safety is a concern and the food should be discarded after the date," per the press release. In other words, if you buy raw meat that says "use by Feb. 26," you shouldn't eat it after that date. But if, for example, you pick up a package of broccoli that says "best by Feb. 26," it may just be a little wilted shortly after that date has passed and may be totally fine to consume.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), anything with a "best by" date could potentially last longer, if you keep it in the right environment. "If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality after its 'use by' or 'best by' date," the agency explains. But if you're ever in doubt, the FDA says you can, to some extent, trust your sense of smell and touch when deciding whether or not a food you want to eat has expired. Per the FDA, "If food is obviously spoiled — it’s abnormally soft, discolored, moldy, or has a strong unpleasant smell — discard it, no matter how properly or how short a time it has been stored."

For a handy reference guide to the storage dates of individual foods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute created the FoodKeeper App — available online, on Google Play, and through the App Store. For pretty much any product you can imagine, the app suggests safety windows depending on if the food is fresh or frozen, the best cooking methods and temperatures, and other tips for making sure you're following the right food safety guidelines.

Animal products are especially likely to be dangerous when expired, so be extra careful if you're not sure whether the carton of eggs you've yet to finish could last a little longer. "Unless you're buying prepackaged deli meat in air-tight packaging (this doesn't include what you buy at the deli counter), those hickory smoked turkey slices are only going to last you about three to five days," Londa Nwadike, PhD, food safety specialist for Kansas State University and the University of Missouri, told Prevention. Old meat specifically, she explained, can potentially carry a risk of listeria, aka a type of bacteria that can lead to things like diarrhea, fever, and muscle aches, and is especially dangerous for older people, pregnant people, and anyone with a weakened immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

So the next time you're examining a "best by" date to try to determine whether you'll be OK to eat it, use the recommendation as just that: a recommendation. For the final call, rely on the sniff test and a careful examination.