Do you know nutrition?: What do use by, sell by and best by dates mean?

May 10, 2011 at 12:10 a.m.

By Phylis Canion

How much does the expiration date that is listed on food products have to do with the safety of foods? I am totally confused by "use by," "sell by" and "best by" dates. Also, are there certain foods that could be unsafe after the date has expired?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food Safety and Inspection Service points out that the dates listed on food products are not a safety date. The date, which is labeled either as "use by," "best if used by," "best by" or "best before" is provided voluntarily by the manufacturer as a guideline and is not an expiration date unless specifically listed as such.

A product that states "expires on" usually applies to baby food or formula and is the only food product regulated by the government with regards to dates.

The "use by" date tells the consumer how long the product is likely to remain at its absolute best flavor, texture, color and quality while it is still sealed.

"Sell by" dates are guides for stores to know how long they can display perishables like, meat, seafood, poultry and milk. The product must be sold by that date or be removed from the shelves. Eggs, however, are good for up to five weeks after the date has expired. While they are usually pulled from the stores, they may remain in your refrigerator.

If a product is labeled "best if used by," the product may be past its peak quality but stores may continue to sell the product beyond the date. Guaranteed fresh usually refers to baked goods and packaging date, frequently seen on canned goods, are typically encoded by the manufacturer to track a food.

Why is lemon so often served with fish? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Lemon slices have been served with fish since the Middle Ages when it was believed that the fruit's juices would dissolve any bones that were accidentally swallowed. While we know that this is not the case, it is true that sucking on a lemon causes the throat muscles to contort, helping to dislodge anything stuck in the throat.

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant, e-mail her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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