And how you can help prevent more food from ending up in the trash.
sell by date cans
Credit: Bryan Gardner

If you've ever wondered exactly what the "sell by" stamps on groceries mean, you're not alone. Though expiration dates are the most frequently consulted piece of packaging information with an estimated 82% of Americans checkingt before buying -- very few of us really understand the labels' language. This means we aren't shopping smartly and unclear expiration labels have been deemed a major contributor to food waste.

"Some of the biggest causes of food waste that people might not know about include throwing food away before it's actually expired," Tamika Sims, PhD, and Food Waste Expert at the International Food Information Council tell us. "Others include not knowing what to do with leftovers and improperly storing food so it ends up expiring more quickly." According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 80% of Americans toss out food prematurely, following the maxim 'better safe than sorry.' This means the average four-person family throws out about $1,500 in groceries that could have been used.

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To help lessen consumer confusion and reduce food waste, two major food industry organizations -- the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute -- launched an initiative earlier this year to streamline label wording. Currently, there are over 10 variations of "best by" or "sell by" labels and no federal requirement they be standardized. This new initiative would narrow label options down to two: "Best if Used By" and "Use By".

"The current existing labels are not as consumer-friendly as we would like, but we are hopeful that many food manufacturers have started moving in the right direction," David Fikes, Vice President, Communications and Community/Consumer Affairs at FMI said. Until then, Fikes shares some tips you can use at home to better navigate expiration dates and help reduce food waste at the same time:


Keeping your groceries fresh for as long as possible depends heavily on how you put them away after shopping (don't hide those berries in the back!) "Remember that different rules apply for shelf-stored products -- rice, pastas, cookies -- and ‘perimeter' foods like meats, dairy, and fresh produce," Fikes adds. He recommends using the FoodKeeper App to learn more about storing various food items for longest shelf life.


From the store to your car to your pantry, Fikes advises you ensure your food stays safe while in transport. In other words, if you have a list of errands to run, don't start with groceries. This way, your food spends less time sitting in the car trunk while you drop off your dry-cleaning.

Another good rule of thumb: when you shop, start with shelf-stable foods first (anything in boxes and cans) and save your refrigerated or frozen items for right before checkout.


"For a vast majority of food products, ‘best by' refers to quality," says Fikes. Best by dates often signifiy how long food will be at its freshest. After this date, the product isn't necessarily ready for the trash. A box of crackers may still be safe to eat, just not be as crisp as they were before the "best by" date.


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