Quick summary: “Best by” dates on shelf-stable foods are typically set for quality, rather than safety reasons. Those dates are often conservative, which means your shelf-stable food could still taste fine for a while afterward. However, if enough time goes by, the food will become unpalatable and could lose nutritional content.
Can you eat foods after their “best by” dates?
Shelf-stable foods, including those that will last a while in the fridge, often bear “best by” dates because their quality, not their safety, will decline over time. Most foods in grocery stores, especially those in the “center aisles” (as in, not in the dairy, deli, bakery, meat or fresh produce departments) are shelf stable. Foods like crackers, cookies, pasta, nuts, spices, still-sealed canned and jarred goods, and many, many others, can still be just fine after the “best by” date. But, eventually, normal chemical changes may make them less palatable.
Doug Marshall, chief scientific officer at Eurofins Microbiological Laboratories, which conducts shelf life testing for companies, said “best by” dates are conservative because companies want to make sure people judge their products at their peak.
He suggests keeping this in mind: “It doesn’t say the product is unacceptable after that date. It just says the manufacturer is making an implied guarantee that if you consume it before this date, it’s gonna be good. It could potentially go well beyond that date and still be good.”
So here’s what to consider when you’re contemplating eating food past its “best by” date:
Do a visual and sensory inspection on shelf-stable food past its printed date, especially if it’s been a while
Before eating a food that’s past its “best by” date, do a sensory inspection.
- Look – See if the food still appears normal. Harmless color fading is possible (though some color fading may indicate off flavors or textures). If the food is moist or has been stored in a damp environment, scan for evidence of microbial growth (unlikely on any shelf-stable food that’s designed to be stored at room temperature, especially if the package is unopened). A growing community of microbes might signal its presence via fuzzy mold growth, or unexpected squishy or slimy parts of the food.
- Smell – Spices can become less fragrant over time. But if an herb or spice still smells good to you, it’s fine. Oils go rancid as they age, resulting in unappetizing smells ranging from cardboard-y to something like paint. And of course, microbes can generate odors.
- Taste – If everything seems fine, go ahead and taste to decide if the food’s flavor is still good.
Read on for more on why those sensory changes, and other changes, occur over time.
Natural chemical changes, including those that affect color, can occur as food ages
As food ages, some physical changes can occur, like golden raisins darkening or a chocolate developing a whitish cast, but don’t indicate safety problems. Such color changes may or may not point to changes in taste. Whitish chocolate, for example, tastes off at room temperature, but will be delicious melted into hot chocolate; darkened golden raisins will taste just like golden golden raisins, though they might be a little drier. You can search EatOrToss’s Food Index for guidance on specific scenarios.
Fats and oils go rancid if you wait too long
Pay special attention to any items in your pantry containing fats or oils. Fats break down over time, especially with exposure to oxygen, heat and light. This results in off flavors and is why it’s rarely advisable to stock an extended supply of foods like cooking oil, crackers and nuts, which have higher oil and fat contents. Crackers and chips can be especially susceptible to going rancid because they have so much surface area–and therefore provide many places for oxygen to react with oils. Storing nuts in the fridge or freezer will slow fat breakdown and extend their life.
Moisture causes starchy foods to go stale
When crisp, starchy foods like chips, crackers, cookies, cereal or crunchy granola bars absorb moisture, they lose their crunch. That’s why it’s always a good idea to seal bags tightly after you’ve opened them. Sometimes, however, if packaging weakens over time, moisture can find its way to the product and cause staling. Moisture migration is also possible if a food has a variety of components and the moisture might, with a lot of time, travel between them.
Consider packaged ice cream-filled cones. The chocolate lining the cone is not only delicious, but it also protects the cone from getting soggy from the ice cream. But as effective as that is, I know I’ve occasionally opened a pre-filled ice cream cone and found that the cone was disappointingly limp. That’s moisture migration at work.
So, if you eat a product that’s supposed to be crisp after the “best by” date, you may find that it’s lost its crunch. Or, it might be fine, but the longer you wait after the printed date, the more likely it might be to lose its crunch and other signature characteristics.
Some foods decline as they lose moisture with age
Moisture gain can cause a product to decline, but so can moisture loss. Consider polenta. A tube of pre-made polenta will probably be fine after its best by date, as its processing and acid content nix bacteria. But the tube can dry out if you leave it too long.
Undamaged canned goods should be safe after their “best by” dates
Canned goods are specially processed so it’s virtually impossible for anything problematic to grow. They are typically heated after they’re sealed so that the contents of the can reach a temperature that no disease- or spoilage-causing bacteria can survive. As long as the can looks good and is properly sealed, the food inside shouldn’t be unsafe. This changes once you open the can; then you’ll need to refrigerate the contents and consume relatively quickly.
Marshall said he’s comfortable eating canned foods after their printed dates.
“These are sterile foods,” he said. “You’ll get some quality changes. So the green beans won’t be quite as green after they sat in that can for four years instead of three and a half years, but they’re perfectly safe to eat.”
Vitamin content can decline over time
Marshall pointed out that vitamins can fade over time. Vitamin C is especially prone to oxidation. So, if you bought a juice that listed a certain vitamin C content, that content will decrease as the juice ages. A freshly purchased product may have higher vitamin content than its nutrition label indicates because the label is designed to be accurate at the end of the promised shelf life of the product, Marshall explained.
Infant formula is shelf stable, but it’s also the only food federally mandated to have a date label, in part because of nutrient loss. The nutrient content, which obviously must be precise for a newborn or infant, degrades over time. Age can also cause chemical changes that make formula clumpier–and therefore unable to flow through a bottle nipple and reach the baby–which is also factored into the “expiration date.”
Similar products can have different “best by” dates
The particular lineup of ingredients can play a significant role in how long a product stays at peak freshness. I checked in with Nature’s Path, which makes a variety of organic cereal and snack products. The company shared that they guarantee the quality of an unopened box of their Organic Heritage Flakes Cereal for 365 days after it’s packaged. But their Organic Pumpkin Raisin Crunch Cereal, which has a wider variety of ingredients, bears a “best by” date that reflects 180 days after production.
Nature’s Path arrives at “best by” dates via both lab tests and sampling by people trained as professional tasters. In the lab, they examine moisture, oxidation and rancidity changes; taste testers weigh in on when flavor, appearance, texture, and aroma start to decline. After the “best by” dates, as long as the products have been properly handled, the company said the food will still be safe, but may not be at peak quality.
A list of foods that are usually fine after their “best by” dates
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of foods that are usually fine to eat after their “best by” dates, assuming they’ve been handled and stored correctly. That said, per all the information above, you may find they’ve lost some quality, especially as time goes by. While my hope is that you don’t needlessly throw away food simply because it’s past its “best by” date, I hope you do use “best by” dates as inspiration to use up extra food and to avoid overstocking. Ideally, we can use our food fast enough that we can worry less about dates overall.
Off my soap box! Here’s that non-exhaustive list of foods that are usually fine to eat after their “best by” dates:
- Dried pasta
- Spices (though the flavor could fade; whole spices last longer than ground)
- Cereal (after the bag is opened, if it’s not sealed tightly, the cereal could start to taste stale; cereal with nuts may be more likely to get rancid)
- Crackers, cookies & chips (but could taste stale or rancid if you wait too long and if you don’t seal the bag well between uses)
- Nuts (keep in the fridge or freezer for long-term storage; the fats go rancid)
- Dry baking supplies (sugar lasts forever as long as its kept dry; whole wheat flour will go rancid–keep it in the fridge for extended storage)
- Jarred and canned goods (once opened, though, you’ll need to store in the fridge and use relatively quickly)
- Kathy Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin
- Kat Navin. PR and Communications Specialist. Nature’s Path Foods. Email correspondence.
- Douglas L. Marshall. Chief Scientific Officer. Eurofins Microbiology Laboratories. Also: Technical Director, Refrigerated Foods Association.
- Shelf Life of Food: An Overview. Catherine Cantley and Janna Verburg-Hamlett. University of Idaho Extension. Published April 2021.
- Labeling Guidance: Best practice on food date labelling and storage advice. WRAP, Food Standards Agency (UK), Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (UK).
- ReFED Date Label Standardization Tool
- Date labeling on pre-packaged foods. Government of Canada.
- The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America. Natural Resources Defense Council. Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University. September 2013.
- Food Product Dating. Food Safety and Inspection Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods? Here’s how to know if your food is still good to eat while also reducing waste in your home. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. May 23, 2019.
- Product Code Dating. FMI, The Food Industry Association.