Food poisoning can happen, but there’s a good chance you’ll actually be just fine. Do you ever find yourself accidentally eating expired foods, such as condiments, breads, canned goods, or snacks? Or better yet, do you get that satisfying feeling of cleaning out your refrigerator by tossing expired items? Well, what if we told you that consuming foods past the best if used-by date, the sell-by date, the use-by date, or the freeze-by date isn’t always bad for you? According to the USDA, many dates listed on foods actually refer to quality, not safety, meaning certain items won’t hurt you if you eat them—they may just taste stale or lose flavor as time goes on. It’s always your best bet to err on the side of caution or check the FDA’s food safety guidelines when consuming expired foods, as the dates can be confusing.
1. Perfectly Good Food Gets Wasted
Because decoding expiration dates and knowing when something is actually bad could be quite confusing, this, unfortunately, leads to a high amount of wholesome food being wasted in the U.S. because people are tossing perfectly good food. “In an effort to reduce food waste, it is important that consumers understand that the dates applied to food are for quality and not for safety,” the USDA reiterates. “Food products are safe to consume past the date on the label, and regardless of the date, consumers should evaluate the quality of the food product prior to its consumption.”
2. Loss Of Nutritional Value
While food can lose quality and develop a poor or stale taste past an expiration date, one of the bigger things to note is that over time, food can lose nutritional value as well. This is specifically true with infant formula, which is the only item that federal regulations require a “use-by” date on the product label under inspection of the FDA to monitor nutrient decline. “Consumption by this date ensures the formula contains not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label,” the USDA notes. “Formula must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple.”
3. Food Poisoning
Food poisoning occurs to one in six Americans per year, and symptoms like fever, chills, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are obviously no fun. Contracting food poisoning could be possible by consuming expired foods if they are contaminated or spoiled, but it’s not always likely. However, this is more common with perishable foods such as eggs, meat, fruits, and vegetables, because mold, sour taste, weird color or texture, and poor smells are more detectable. It’s important to monitor when these items were bought so you know if you’re putting yourself at risk by eating something after too much time.
4. Exposure To Dangerous Bacteria
Food poisoning could be mild or severe, but sometimes, contracting food poisoning can expose you to dangerous bacteria or toxins, including Listeria, Campylobacter enteritis, Cholera, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, and Shigella, and more. “Microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can multiply and cause food to spoil. Viruses are not capable of growing in food and do not cause spoilage,” the USDA says, noting that pathogenic bacteria on food is more likely to cause foodborne illness. Unfortunately, many of these harmful bacteria have been linked to illness, hospitalization, and even death, according to foodsafey.gov.
5. Nothing At All
You’ll probably be glad to know that there’s a big chance that nothing will actually happen to you if you consume something that is expired besides a yucky taste. Even so, it’s still not the best idea nor is it necessary to eat expired foods on a regular basis. With a lot of foods, the dates are more about freshness and better taste than safety. Per the NRDC, “the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.” When looking at the perplexing dates, know that “best if used by/before,” “sell-by,” “use-by,” or “freeze-by” are not purchase by or safety dates. In fact, sell-by dates help stores know how long to display a product, while the others are all about the best quality.