It’s about those ‘Best before’ dates…

Best before dates... the great fraud?
Best before dates... the great fraud?

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You’d be hard pressed to find anything in your pantry or fridge that doesn’t have a ‘Best before’ or ‘Use by’ date stamped on it. But what does that date really mean? Let’s take those vitamin pills that you saw discounted 80% because they’ve hit their ‘Best before’ date. Does that mean the vitamins and minerals have disintegrated, disappeared into thin air, done a Houdini?

The exact opposite is true! By law, the pills or supplements must have 100% of the potency stated on the label as at the date of expiration. If you look along your supermarket shelves, you will see vitamins for sale with ‘Best before’ dates many months and even years into the future. To achieve expiration date potency, it’s common for manufacturers to make (say) 525mg pills for a label that promises 500mg potency. That allows for the gradual degradation that will occur.

But what about pills two years past their ‘Best before’ you ask. Well, it does depend on how you’ve stored them, but with common-sense care, they probably still have 95% potency!

Another great example is pasta. Your packs are all stamped with a magic date yet they are typically still in perfect condition for two or three years even if they’ve been opened!

$166 BILLION of food is tossed each year in the USA alone! *

Can’t picture that? Try visualizing 730 football stadiums full of food – and those are estimates from 2008, not 2015!

Let’s face commercial reality… any food manufacturer logically wants to stamp the shortest ‘Best before’ date on any of their products. They want you to throw out the ‘stale’ and buy fresh. They only make money on new sales, not on what you have already bought.

Supermarkets won’t sell food that’s gone past its ‘Best before’ or ‘Use by’ date because they’re terrified of being sued. And like the manufacturers, they’re into selling high margin, fresh produce rather than heavily discounted ‘old’ goods.

Two other excellent examples are yogurt and cheese…

Unopened hard cheeses can last for years given reasonable conditions. Right now, I am using some Grana Padano with a best before date of 17-07-14. We bought a half dozen shortly before they expired at an 83% discount. It’s in perfect condition. I also have a couple of vintage cheddars that are more than four months past their ‘Best before’. I’m 100% confident they’ll be perfect a year from now. After all, this particular cheese was probably matured for two or more years before even being packaged!

Many cheeses benefit from additional maturation
Many cheeses benefit from additional maturation

Camembert and brie are two cheeses that must be ripened to get the intended gastronomical experience. I’ve been having a love affair with both since I was a kid! I consistently find that they are not ripe enough to eat until 7 – 10 days after the ‘Best before’ date! Why would I pay $10 for either cheese just to store it in the fridge for six weeks until it is ready to eat when I can buy it for $4 and eat it within a week?

And then there’s yogurt. We’re huge consumers of yogurt in this household. We consume at least a kilogram of yogurt each every week. Yet we never – and I really mean never, buy yogurt that is not heavily discounted because it is approaching the magic date. Any commercially packaged yogurt is typically good for a month or two past it’s ‘Best before’ date. If there is any sign of mold, play safe and dump it. I can’t remember ever opening a yogurt and discovering mold!

Milk and cream? Sure they go off much sooner, but if you intend using it within days, it will usually last the distance. The good thing about both is that they develop that distinctive sour smell as they start to turn.

But what about meat?

There’s meat and then there is meat. I am always paranoid about poultry anyway. I buy it fresh and cook it fresh. But beef, lamb and kangaroo? Aged is best! In fact, premium meats are aged to maximise flavours. Obviously, storage is the key. And count on days rather than weeks. But if you see good meat heavily discounted buy it and freeze it! It will be good for another six months or more.

Processed meats are a different story. Unopened, you can expect them to be good for weeks after the ‘Best before’ date but use them withing days of opening. Salami and similar meats were ‘invented’ because there was no refrigeration! They are still air-dried for months before sale. The ‘Best before’ date is arbitrary.

Fresh produce?

Use common sense. There is no point buying discounted citrus unless you intend to use them within days. One the other hand, there are pre-packed pears and kiwifruit. It’s almost laughable… neither ripen (in my experience) until at least a week or longer after the ‘Best before’ date! We love both and typically pay cents in the dollar for kiwifruit in particular.

The one exception:

Baby formula! The USDA specifically singles out baby formula as the one food that should never by used past the ‘Use by‘ date.

The bottom line…

Most families struggle to make their income cover all their needs. I’ve never added up our savings but I can guarantee we save at least $100 a month (and probably twice that) by buying ‘close dated’ foods. Yet we eat well 100% of the time while also reducing the amount of food waste hitting the environment. Think about it… would an extra $100 each month help your family?

Take a look at John Oliver taking a poke at food waste:


If you saw sense in this article, here’s another eye-opener we wrote some time back:

What you need to know about food waste!

* Science Direct