Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Alexia. Alexia Wonders, “How are expiration dates determined?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Alexia!

Have you ever gone grocery shopping with a friend or family member? Did you help pick out the meat your family would eat? How about milk and eggs? Maybe you picked out a loaf of bread or a bag of apples. If you paid much attention to any of these items, you may have seen a special date stamped across them. What are we talking about? Expiration dates, of course!

Many people find expiration dates very helpful. When shopping, most people try to buy food with expiration dates that are farther away. They believe this gives them more time to eat the food before it spoils. However, there’s a lot of confusion over what expiration dates actually mean. How are these dates determined?

There’s no blanket process for setting expiration dates. Instead, food manufacturers and retailers determine these dates as they see fit. They may take many factors into consideration. They’ll think about the characteristics of the particular food as well as its packaging. The temperature at which the food will be stored is also an important factor. 

But what happens when a food’s expiration date arrives? Does it spoil? Should it be thrown out? Is it safe to eat food past its expiration date?

Most of the time, food is safe to eat after its expiration date, as long as it doesn’t show other signs of spoiling. In fact, most expiration dates aren’t meant to be the date on which food will go bad. Instead, they’re meant to be general guidelines for how long items will maintain their quality. 

For example, a bag of chips five days past its “Use by” date might not be as crisp as they once were. Fruits and vegetables with “Freeze by” dates should be frozen by those dates to preserve their taste.  And “Sell by” dates? Those are set by retailers. They simply tell stores how long to keep products on the shelf. None of these mean that food is unsafe after a given date. The only exception to this rule is baby formula, which loses nutritional value after its “Use by” date.

How can people tell if their food is still good past its expiration date? Experts agree that it’s best to rely on your senses. In most cases, food will smell and taste bad if it’s spoiled. Many items will also look different if they’ve gone bad. Spoiled foods might grow mold or change colors. If any of these signs are present, the food should not be eaten.

Many people misunderstand expiration dates. They throw out food after the printed date without looking for any signs of spoilage. This is a major contributor to the issue of food waste. Experts estimate that Americans throw out 30-40 percent of the food they buy. Of course, some food waste is due to food actually going bad. However, properly checking food for spoilage instead of relying on expiration dates helps people cut back on waste.

That carton of milk sitting in the refrigerator? Give it a good sniff before you throw it out! Often, milk is still usable for up to a week after its printed expiration date. And the same goes for many other foods, especially those that are canned or frozen. When it comes to food safety, trust your senses!

Standards: CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.8, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

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