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Experts say to buy food items with the furthest-out expiration dates. d3sign/Getty Images
  • A new survey indicates many consumers don’t understand food expiration date labels.
  • Experts say it’s important to be aware of this information to avoid food poisoning and other illnesses.
  • One way to keep food fresh is to grocery shop more than once a week.
  • Another way is to use the “first in, first out” system when preparing meals.

You know the difference between “Best If Used By” and “Use By” dates, right?

Well, you might want to check again.

A new survey found that even though most people said they use food expiration labels and know what they mean, less than half (46 percent) knew that the “Best If Used By” label specifically indicates that food quality may deteriorate (or spoil) after the date on the label.

Less than one-quarter (24 percent) of study respondents knew that the “Use By” label means that food is not safe to eat after the date on the label.

Teaching the respondents the differences didn’t change their view much either.

After viewing educational messages, 37 percent of survey respondents still did not understand the specific meaning of the “Best If Used By” label, and 48 percent did not understand the specific meaning of the “Use By” label.

“Unwarranted confidence and the familiarity of date labels may make consumers less attentive to educational messaging that explains the food industry’s labeling system,” said Catherine Turvey, MPH, a study author from the department of exercise and nutrition sciences at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Depending on the food you’re eating, you could get sick if you don’t understand these labels.

“Products past their labeled date are no longer at their freshest and could be growing harmful bacteria,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of “Skinny Liver.”

“The rate at which bacteria grows is different for each food, but depending on the rate of growth of these bacteria, one could come down with food poisoning due to contamination,” she told Healthline.

That is the worst case scenario.

“But the chances of something happening are not 0 percent either,” Kirkpatrick said. “Symptoms of this can be stomachache or cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.”

Freshness makes a difference.

Kirkpatrick said she’s a stickler for dates on food products.

“I believe food at its freshest is food at its best,” she said. “I’d rather not take the risk of getting myself or my family sick from contaminated food.”

“I know on days when you are clinched for time at dinner it might be easier to pretend the ‘Best By’ or ‘Used By’ date doesn’t exist, but is it worth getting sick over?” she asked.

How Kirkpatrick keeps food at peak freshness

  • When buying food at the store, grab the product with the furthest-away “Best By” or “Use By” date because this allows for more time to consume it before it poses any risk to foodborne illnesses.
  • Shop more than just once a week to ensure fresh products at home.
  • Research some food delivery services to find one you feel comfortable using to get fresh products delivered to your door and save time spent shopping.
  • Freeze foods you know you won’t eat right away.

“If you are someone who is really busy and you need to prep meals ahead of time, I suggest cooking meals 24 hours ahead of time and nothing longer,” she said.

“This is the safest way to save time and avoid getting sick,” she told Healthline. “Remember, just because food products are cooked before ‘Use By’ dates doesn’t mean they are safe to eat 7 days after cooking. Bacteria growth still exists on cooked foods and will pose a risk of illness.”

If all this sounds expensive, don’t worry.

Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, shares tips on consuming your food before it expires so you’re not wasting time or money.

“I recommend downloading an app, like the FoodKeeper app, for an easy-access guide to how long foods will keep,” she told Healthline. “The FoodKeeper helps you understand food and beverages storage.”

“It will help you maximize the freshness and quality of items and by doing so you will be able to keep items fresh longer than if they were not stored properly. It was developed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute. It is also available as a mobile application for Android and Apple devices,” Passerrello said.

If an app isn’t appealing, you can also keep things more simple with Passerrello’s idea of using the “first in, first out” method for food storage.

“When new food comes into the house, it takes its place in the back of the pantry or refrigerator to be sure I reach for the items that need to be used sooner, first,” she said.

Passerrello’s additional suggestions on keeping foods fresh:

  • Be sure to store foods properly. Keeping them as airtight as possible helps foods stay fresh for their maximum potential.
  • Use a planning cycle to reduce food waste. Look at your calendar and determine how many meals you will need to prepare in the time frame between your next grocery shopping trips.
  • Meal plan: Determine what you will make for that time frame and create your shopping list from your meal plan.
  • Stick to the list so you don’t bring home food you don’t have a plan for.
  • When you arrive home, promptly and properly store the food.
  • Stick to your planned meals as much as possible throughout the week, and use any leftovers rather than letting them go to waste.