What do Dates on Food Labels Really Mean?

Created September 26, 2018
How to Read Date Labels
We’re deciphering what all the labels mean so you know how long your food will stay good—without having to give it the sniff test. MORE+ LESS-

Betty Crocker is embarking on a campaign to #tastenotwaste. As a global food company, General Mills recognizes food waste is a major social, environmental, and economic challenge and is invested in change. We are continuously working to improve production processes that eliminate waste and are partnering with Feeding America to make sure uneaten food gets from stores and restaurants to people, not garbage cans. But there is one place we need help—at home, where 40% of food waste happens. The stats about consumer food waste at home might surprise you.

Nearly 90% of us throw food out before it is actually bad and that can be for a misunderstanding of food labels. The most common designations on packaging are sell-by, best-by, and use-by, but what do these all mean? And which one should you follow when it comes to getting rid of uneaten food?

Sell By

Sell-By Date

First, the sell-by date is not meant for consumer use. This date is aimed at retailers to tell them when the product should be sold or removed from the shelf. It is not a safety indicator for consumers. About a third of a product’s shelf life remains after the sell-by date.

Best By

Best-By Date

The second label is the best-by date. This is used as a quality indicator for us, the consumers. The product is still safe to eat after the date, but the taste or texture might have diminished or the product might not have the full vitamin content indicated on the package.

Use By

Use-By Date

The most important date to consider before throwing an item out is the use-by date. This label is a safety indicator. For perishable products, this label indicates when there might be spoilage or bacterial growth. This date assumes proper storage was used and only applies to unopened products. A quick look through our guide to food storage will help to answer questions about what to store where, and for how long.

Important Note

Once a container has been opened none of the dates really mean anything. Instead use the rule of 4’s when storing open containers and leftovers. You can store an open item for four days at 4 degrees C or 40 F. Items older than four days or not properly stored should be discarded.

Understanding food date labels is just one of many small ways that you can make a big difference when it comes to food waste at home. What other tips and tricks do you use to #tastenotwaste your food? Tell us in the comments below or use our hashtag on Facebook and Instagram.