Expiration Dates Explained

expiration dates explainedWe all want to keep our babies safe and full of nutritional vitality; we also want to get the most bang for our buck. When it came to expiration dates though, I found myself befuddled by the vague wording on products we purchased. A little investigating brought me to the following conclusion: use the dates as a guide; use my senses for final approval. This works for food in general. Let me tell you what I mean.

Take note if you’re looking at a “sell by,” “best by,” or “use by” date. Stores use the sell-by date as a guide for stocking and clearing out their shelves. A product is not at its peak if you use after the best-by date. The use-by date is set by the manufacturer as the last date you can eat the product with assurance of quality. You may even see a date that refers to when the product was packaged, which can offer you information on if the product is still good as well as insight if the product is ever recalled. None of these dates speak specifically to the safety of food—food dating is not about public health so much as peak quality. So your food may be less crunchy, less vibrant, or a little harder, but often it is still safe to eat.

Next, take heart in knowing that you aren’t the only one wondering why so many dates exist. Most states require one or more of these dates while other states have no restrictions. Being so removed from the production of food while also heavily concerned about safety, Americans very often don’t realize how robust most food actually is and too often throw it out early. There is no uniform system in the United States pertaining to expiration dates aside from infant formula, which the government requires dating to ensure babies consume it at full nutritional value.

Last, as a general guide, consider the USDA time table. For example, eggs may last 3-5 weeks after purchasing but the expiration date may occur before this time. Milk is generally best within a week of the sell-by date on the product. It is critical to store food at the appropriate temperature (40 degrees Fahrenheit and below) and freeze within the parameters set by the USDA if you are not going to use the product before then. Use your senses as well. Look for mold on bread or growth on your berries and smell out sour milk or meat.

Considering child-specific items, infant formula is considered to be at full nutritional value until the expiration date. If you are concerned about safety, it is also vital to heat the product evenly (not in the microwave) and not freeze formula (to prevent separation of ingredients). Other infant foods in a jar or pouch should be used by the suggested time on the product once opened, usually 1-3 days. Any jar or pouch that you double-dip into should be thrown out after that sitting as pathogens could more easily make their way into the product when you dip the spoon back into the product.

As for medication, again the expiration date may not mean what you think. For several decades the FDA has required expiration dates on medicine to note when the medication is reliably at full potency and safety. Studies have shown most medicines are still good long after—in some cases more than a decade after—the expiration date. Again, storing the medication at the suggested temperature and lighting is essential. Remember how often you put medication in your purse or diaper bag when you consider the efficacy of your product. There are some drugs that can be harmful after the expiration date, so check with your pharmacist if you have any doubts.

Lynette Moran shares her life with her husband and two sons, ages 1 and 3 years. She has cloth diapered both since birth and enjoys all things eco-friendly and mindful living.


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