Food Waste

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I’m starting to think that we’re overthinking this whole grocery shopping thing.

How many people take way too long in the milk aisle, digging around the skim and 2 percent cartons for the latest expiration date on the shelf? I’m no expert, but I think that risking a sip past an expiration date is far from the immediate death sentence we think it’s going to be.

“Best if used by” have become four of the most powerful words in today’s society. Our fridges and pantries are routinely cleaned out based on this mantra, and it’s time the world found out — it’s usually okay to eat foods past their expiration date.

Confusion about food labels leads to unnecessary food waste in nearly every American household. About 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S., and the environment is taking the biggest hit because of it.

Rotting food in landfills is the third-largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., according to a nutrition professor at ASU. When we throw out food, we don’t tend to think about its journey past the trash can. But if we keep those snacks a couple of days past their “best by” dates and finish eating them, we could impact climate change in a positive and easy way.

Another hidden consequence of food waste is the effect it has on your wallet. Constantly throwing food away means having to buy it more and more frequently. This is especially true for fruits and vegetables, which people tend to throw out quicker than other foods.

Tossing a browned banana or a mealy apple may not seem like a hit to your bank account in the moment, but up to $1,500 is lost per household per year on wasted food. Maybe reconsider the next time you decide to ditch the bag of lettuce that looks fine, but has been “sitting for a while.”

To break it down, here’s the truth about food labels.

“Best if used by” strictly refers to the quality of food, not the safety of it. Eating food past its “best if used by” date is in no way harmful to your body — it just might be a little past its peak flavor or texture.

“Sell by” is basically a guideline for the grocery store for when to stop displaying a product. It’s best to buy the product before that date passes, but you can still eat it past that date at home.

“Guaranteed fresh until” or “enjoy by” is similar to “best if used by.” The peak quality may have passed, but it’s edible for a while longer and will taste nearly the same as before.

“Use by” is the last date recommended by the manufacturer of the product to eat at peak quality. A common misconception about food labels is that they are federally regulated, but the expiration dates on them are really just an estimate put out by that product’s company.

However, do not take away from this that food never expires. It definitely does, and foodborne illnesses should be taken seriously.

Prepared foods, deli meats and soft cheeses are at the highest risk of contamination with listeria when refrigerated for long periods of time. However, people tend to keep these kinds of foods longer than raw chicken for example, which is cooked before consumed and therefore at less of a risk for contamination.

Because food is such an essential aspect of our lives, education about food safety and misleading labels is extremely important. “Waste not, want not” is a cliche, but are wise words to live by. Instead of doing away with shelves full of food the day their expiration date arrives, trust that your body can handle it and that food is meant to last longer than you might expect.