Good To Know

Four Food Dates to Know: Navigating the Terminology 

By Berit Dockter, Registered Dietitian, International Food Additives Council 

With inflation affecting families across the country, discarding food is something nobody enjoys, and yet, it is a habit many of us have. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 40% of the U.S. food supply goes to waste, resulting in a loss of about $1,500 of uneaten food per year for the average family of four. Not all discarded food is bad, and in some cases, product labels can be confusing about the safety or quality of a product. But aside from the inevitable moldy bread or wilted lettuce, how do you know what to save and what to get rid of? 

Navigating the various food dates isn’t always simple – we’re often left wondering “what is the difference between ‘best-by’ and ‘use-by’?” The International Food Additives Council (IFAC), a global association representing manufacturers of food ingredients, hopes to shine light on the differences between these food terminologies. Congress has reintroduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2023, which aims for a standardized approach to product dating with the hopes of reducing both consumer confusion and food waste. Until such measures are in place, IFAC is providing a quick guide to help you know what to keep and what to toss. 

  • Use-By Date: 
    The “use-by” date indicates the final day when a product is anticipated to be at its most optimum quality. This is commonly applied to perishable items such as dairy products, meats, and ready-to-eat meals. The use-by date may also carry safety implications if the food is consumed significantly past this date. Particularly with perishable items, precautions should always be exercised. If there is any doubt, it is best to do a visual inspection and lean on the side of caution by discarding the item.  
  • Sell-By Date: 
    The sell-by date is primarily aimed at retailers as it communicates the date by which the store should sell the product to ensure their customers have a reasonable window to use it before its quality begins to decline. It is important to note, this doesn’t imply that the product becomes unsafe after the “sell-by” date; it has minimal impact on the safety of the product. Consumers can still consider and use the product after this date with confidence in its safety. 
  • Best-By/Before Date: 
    The most common among the food dates is the “best-by” date which mirrors the “use-by” date indicating the date by which a product is expected to be at its best quality. Frequently seen on packaged foods, canned goods, and snacks, it’s worth noting that consuming products after the “best-by” date does not necessarily present health risks. However, there might be a gradual decline in the flavor, texture, and nutritional content. In many cases, foods remain safe for consumption well beyond the “best-by” date provided they have been stored properly and display no signs of spoilage.
  • Freeze-By: 
    The freeze-by date specifies the ideal freezing point for a product to maintain peak quality. It’s important to follow proper freezing guidelines and know that frozen storage times vary from meat to other frozen items. This date is not intended as a purchase or safety date.

In addition to learning these important food date guides, it is also essential to understand the role food additives play in reducing food waste and ultimately helping save money. Food additives and ingredients, such as antioxidants and stabilizers, help prevent spoilage and increase the shelf-life of some of your favorite foods. Understanding what these dates mean is one of the easiest ways to know whether to throw out a food product or not.

A food ingredient is any substance that is added to a food to achieve a desired effect. The term includes food additives, which are substances added to foods for specific technical and/or functional purposes during processing, storage, or packaging. Food ingredients allow food makers to produce a wide variety of foods that are safe, nutritious, and tasty. They are used in very small quantities but contribute significantly to our vast and varied food supply—ensuring that the foods we love look and taste the way we have come to expect.

For more information on food additives and other helpful food tips to help save money, please visit www.foodingredientfacts.org

About the Author: 

Berit Dockter MPP, RD, LD is a Senior Account Executive at Kellen Company, a global association management company. Based in Washington DC, Berit manages trade associations in the food and nutrition space, specializing in regulatory and legislative affairs, strategic planning, and association governance. Berit serves as the Senior Manager of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the International Food Additives Council. Some of her specific areas of focus include the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, FDA food labeling, international food standards, and federal legislation.

About International Food Additives Council (IFAC): 

The International Food Additives Council is a global association representing manufacturers of food ingredients, including food additives and GRAS substances. IFAC members include experienced personnel from food safety and quality teams of small, medium, and large companies that produce and use ingredients in foods, beverages, and dietary supplements.  

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