Expiration Dates on Products

Expiration Dates on Products
Why you probably won’t expire if you ingest expired food and medications

By Debra L. Karplus

“The US generates more trash. 34 million tons of food waste each year. Food waste is more than 14% of the total municipal solid waste stream”, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (epa.gov). Many mainstream American families live by the adage if in doubt, throw it out. One might wonder exactly what food is going into those landfills.

Most people who stretch their dollars are absolutely disgusted with the idea of throwing out food; that attitude seems to be universal among frugal people. Before discarding food they ask themselves if it is a food that has a little more life left in it to serve one more time. They ponder whether “old” food has potential to be safely disguised in leftovers? They wonder if throw-away food could at least be transformed into garden compost.

Expiration dates on medications and packaged food are more about full potency than about safety.

In 1979, the federal government passed legislation that required expiration dates on specific products sold. These “sell by” dates were intended to provide retailers with guidelines for putting food and drugs on store shelves. The dates were not supposed to scare consumers out of using these items. Examine some of the packaged foods on your kitchen cupboard shelves or over-the-counter vitamins and nutritional supplements, and drugs in the bathroom medicine cabinet and you will notice these dates.

According to webMd.com, expressions such as “best if used by”, “use by” or “pack date” are more about the quality of the product and not really about their safety. “Expiration date” is the last day recommended to eat the product for optimal flavor or potency.

Prescriptions medications require more attention to expiration dates, since potency is crucial to their safe and effective use. Call your pharmacist and ask about your specific “aged” prescription. These professionals are quite knowledgeable about the pharmaceuticals they sell and will give you information with honesty and integrity about the safety of their products.

Many food items may have more life left in them than you might imagine.

Canning and freezing are methods of storing preserving foods to increase theirs shelf life; though sometimes flavor is compromised. Canned food, such as peas and corn, will be safe to eat within five years; the exception on canned foods is acidic foods such as tomatoes and tomato products which are best eaten within eighteen months. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (nchfp.uga.edu) recommends that frozen foods can be safely stored in your home freezer at zero degrees for one to twelve months depending on the type of food; frozen meats have a short storage life, frozen fruits and vegetables can be stored for up to a year.

Fresh food stored in your refrigerator has a shorter shelf life than those canned or frozen. Eggs should be used within three to five weeks of their sell date; after that date, they lose potency. Dairy foods such as milk and yogurt are acceptable to use within a week of their sell date. Note that yogurt that contains fruit typically has a shorter shelf life. Fresh meats should be either cooked or frozen within a week for safety reasons.
Dollar stretching families often wonder if it is safe to eat foods with a little bit of mold on them such as moldy bread or cheese. Medical experts encourage consumers to beware. Ingesting moldy foods may exacerbate the mold allergies that affect a surprisingly large percentage of the population. Additionally, foods containing mold can put dangerous toxins in the body. Eating a slice of bread with mold on it to avoid discarding twenty cents worth of food and ending up in a hospital emergency ward is simply not a prudent choice. Be cautious!

You can develop a system for purchasing and storing your foods and medications for optimizing their flavor, potency and safety.

Take your time when shopping and get into the habit of checking dates on over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, and on food items such as yogurt. Items near the back of the grocery shelf are likely to be newer and thus have a longer shelf life. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t purchase these newer goods. In your own kitchen, organize products so that you have the older ones within easy reach to use first. Finally, rely on your good sense of intuition; if it looks and smells okay and you are only concerned about the date, then it’s probably safe to eat. Bon appetite!

This article by Debra Karplus first appeared on Debra Karplus, freelance writer and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

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