How do I make sense of food date labels?
Why should I try this?
Take a quick glance at your food packaging – chances are, there’s probably a date on there somewhere either ‘Best before’ or ‘Use by’. But what does it mean?
This guide will help you make sense of them and, as a result, save your food from being thrown away while it’s still perfectly edible.
You’ll be surprised by how much this could save you on your shopping bill by helping you get the greatest value from your food that’s already at home.
How do I do this?
It’s helpful to begin by understanding the purpose behind each type of label:
- Best before – is about the quality of the food
- Use by – is about the safety of the food
- Display until / sell by – is for retailers attention only
Take a look in your fridge and cupboards and see which foods have the above labels on them.
Food date labels
‘Best before’ refers to quality: your food will be at its best when used before the date given.
- After this peak freshness date, it might not be at its best, but it will still be safe to eat. Use your senses to make a judgement.
- Depending on how your food is stored, it has the potential to be good enough to eat for a long time after this date. Check out our food guides to find the correct places to store your food.
- Some dairy milk will now be showing a Best before date. Milk will not last as long as other foods beyond the Best before date. Bacteria doesn’t develop until after the milk has gone sour, looks lumpy and smells bad so use your senses to judge when milk is still good to use.
Here’s a guide to a few key food items and how long after the date they can be eaten:
- Biscuits – six months
- Canned food – 12 months
- Cereals – six months
- Confectionary – 12 months
- Crisps – one month
- Dried pasta – three years!
- Pasta sauce – 12 months
Use by date labels
‘Use by’ refers to safety: you must not eat food past the ‘use by’ date.
- You cannot always smell the bacteria that causes food to spoil, so after the ‘use by’ date, the food may appear perfectly fine to eat, but could still lead to food poisoning.
- Let’s be absolutely clear: you should NOT eat food after the ‘use by’ date - even if it looks and smells OK.
Display until / Sell by date labels
These dates are for the retailers – not us at home. You don’t need to worry about these.
Foods that don’t have any date labels
Some products, such as uncut fruit and vegetables and wine, for example, aren’t required to have a date label, and there are specific regulations referring to hen’s eggs, which require the use of a Best Before date.
What you may begin to notice
The more familiar you get with the different labels, the more your confidence around food will grow. You’ll soon get used to inspecting the food with Best before labels rather than relying on just the date on the label.
Over time, you’ll begin to realise just how much more edible food is being eaten and saved from the bin.
Remember to take a look at some of our other How do I guides to see how you can make more of your food at home.
Frequently asked questions
How do I know where it’s best to store my food and for how long?
Can I ignore Use by date labels?
No. Even if it looks and smells ok you should only eat food with Use by dates up until the date shown on the label. After the ‘use by’ date, the food may appear perfectly fine to eat, but could still lead to food poisoning.