Learn the Secret Language of Food Packaging to Save on Groceries

Sometimes the dates on your food packaging don't mean exactly what you think... Here is how to read them to properly understand your food and waste less!

Saving money isn't just about spending less, but it's also about getting more from what we already have. Like we've covered before, food waste is something all of us can be a lot better with. Aside from squeezing the most out of our leftovers, there's also one other way we may have been wasting our food. That would be through throwing away perfectly good food while they're still in their packaging.

How can we be making that mistake? The expiration date is printed right on them! Ah, but are those really expiration dates? While our Ministry of Health advises that we consume all goods well before any of the dates printed on any packaging, our research has revealed (and many international health and food organizations agree) that there are slight differences in what the dates on food packaging actually mean.

Identifying these differences and applying them when shopping and using food can help us optimize our grocery budget while being smarter with our money.

Best Before

May also be worded as “Better Before”, the dates this label refer to the quality of the item inside, not safety. Typically you see these printed on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned, and other foods. When the dates are passed, it doesn't necessarily mean that you might get sick, but the item might start to lose flavour, colour, or texture.

If you're on the fence on consuming foods that are no longer at their best, what you can do is cook them thoroughly in high heat. High temperatures kill off most harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. Coli. So when you're buying a food item you intend to cook anyway, you don't have to spend cash to renew your stock if the items have only passed their “Best Before” date.

Use By

You will see "Use By" dates on food that goes off quickly, such as meat products, ready-prepared salads, and pre-packaged sushi. As it properly implies, you should not use an item past its “Use By” date even if it looks and smells fine as this can put your health at risk. Types of food that have a “Use By” date usually also include usage instructions like “eat within three days of opening” or “consume within a week”. Failure to comply with these recommendations can put you at risk of food poisoning.

To optimize your grocery budget, remember to only buy food with this label if you know you'll be using them soon. Alternatively, you can freeze the food to extend their shelf life beyond the date, but remember to follow any freezing instruction on the packaging if there are any.

Sell By / Display Until

These two essentially mean the same thing and are meant for the retailer and not the consumer. Retailers are meant to take these items off the shelves by the date on the packaging and stop selling them. Normally, this is either because the item will no longer look attractive or begin to smell. It has little to do with the food being bad for consumption, however. Sellers may instead sell it as animal feed or repurpose it as ingredients for prepared food at a different part of the store.

So if you notice these labels on the food you have at home, remember that they don't point to a date where the food will be harmful. You can use them normally, without having to throw anything out.

Those are the three main variants of food labeling that relates to spoilage. They often appear in conjunction or in different combinations, so take some time to figure out which date the food truly becomes unusable at all.

Important Things to Keep in Mind

  • All the dates printed on the packaging of course only apply if you closely follow the storage instructions included alongside. Don't expect your dried squid to still be tasty if you've been leaving it unopened out in the rain, for example. The storage instructions affect the quality of the contents quite a lot, so it's best to pay attention to them.
  • Speaking of storage, freezing any food item extends its shelf life past their printed dates, but remember to use them within 24 hours of thawing. Thawed foods rapidly deteriorate and are particularly vulnerable to bacteria.
  • Some products even have a date of packaging. This should have no effect on your purchasing decisions, unless a recent food recall is announced. A product recall will mention which production batch to avoid by date.

One last thing to remember is that your health is more important than saving some cash. While it does help to know which types of food can be used for a while longer than the packaging says, if you have a sensitive stomach, are serving food to babies, small children, the elderly, or people who are already unwell, err on the side of caution and stick close to the dates on the boxes.

Armed with this information, we hope you can now waste a lot less food and be a much better shopper at the same time. For a handy guide to how long different types of foods can last, check out this handy website StillTasty. Do you have any other money-saving tips for grocery shopping? Do let us know in the comments section down below!

*References: Kementerian Kesihatan Malaysia, The National Health Service UK, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency
Images via reddit user hayleybc and Love Food, Hate Waste.

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