Understanding Food Labels

Reviewed by Eleese Cunningham, RDN
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Food packaging contains a wealth of information, from the Nutrition Facts Panel to the Ingredient List, and knowing what to look for is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Another valuable piece of information on your food packaging is whether or not the food is still safe to eat.

There are two types of dating that are usually displayed on a food product: "Open dating" and "Closed or coded dating."
  • "Open dating" uses a calendar date as opposed to a code and helps the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It also helps the purchaser know when to purchase or use the product at its best quality.  In addition to the "open date," there must be a phrase such as "sell by," or "use by" to explain the meaning of the date. "Open dating" is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat and dairy products.
  • "Closed or coded dating" are packing numbers used by the manufacturer. They primarily appear on shelf stable products like cans and boxes of food.

Knowing the difference between the "sell by," "best if used by," and "use by" date isn't always easy, but it's a valuable skill in reducing your risk of food poisoning.

  • The "sell by" date tells the store the last day they should sell that specific package. You should be sure to buy the product before this date passes and cook or freeze the product by the time on the Refrigerator/Freezer Storage Chart or Time To Toss? App page.
  • The "best if used by" date is not a safety-related date, but instead is the recommended date for best flavor or quality. Even if the "best if used by" date has passed on a food you have at home, it should be safe if stored and handled properly.
  • The "use by" date is the last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality according to the manufacturer.  If a product has a "use by" date, follow that date.

Even if the "use by" or "sell by" date hasn't passed, foodborne pathogens can still contaminate foods that aren't properly stored and handled. Always wash your hands, separate raw foods from ready-to-eat foods, cook to proper temperatures and refrigerate foods promptly.

To check on the shelf life of foods without "sell by" dates, such as leftovers or produce, download our free app Is My Food Safe? This app is your number one kitchen companion for reducing your risk of food poisoning.

And remember, if you still aren't sure how old something is or if it is safe to eat: When in doubt, throw it out!

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