Health

FYI, That Pasta You Bought Pre-Quarantine Is Probably Still OK To Eat

Why you don’t have to eat every food by its best-by label.

A woman arranges bottles and jars of foods you can eat past the expiration date.
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The last time you found yourself judging your roommate for eating their Greek yogurt past the expiration date and they said sell-by dates are a social construct... well, they weren’t wrong. Expiration dates aren't always accurate representations of a food's shelf life, and — as your roomie has probably reminded you — those labels have been linked to a massive amount of food waste every year. Of course, you don't want to eat something that's unsafe or could make you sick, but you can save money and reduce waste if you stop living by the date you see stamped on your yogurt cartons. Despite what people may think, there are foods you can eat past the expiration dates on their labels.

With the exception of baby formula, labeling foods with “best if used by” dates isn’t legally required and doesn’t indicate a specific safety measure, says Tamika Sims, Ph.D., the senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council. “These labels should be considered an estimate,” she explains. They indicate when “the food will be at its peak quality and flavor, but they are not an exact science, and consumers should know of potential inconsistencies when evaluating whether to eat or throw away a particular food.”

Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietician and nutritionist based in Brooklyn, tells Bustle, suggests caution. "As a rule of thumb, anyone with a compromised immune system should not eat food after the best by dates, especially if it is visibly spoiled or foul-smelling." Additionally, she advises against ever eating meat, poultry, or seafood past its expiration date.

When it comes to eating other foods that are expired according to their labels, though, the most important thing to do is use your common sense. If an item smells terrible or is visibly off, Feller suggests composting it instead of taking a chance on eating it. The same goes for if the item's texture, consistency, or color has changed. Basically, never consume something you're unsure of. Still, there are plenty of foods that are safe long after their sell-by dates, as long as they don't display any of those signs.

So what does that mean for “can I eat this expired cheese?” conundrum? Sims tells Bustle that it depends on the specific food, and that you should always check the examine food for potential spoilage before you chow down anyway — “regardless of the dates stamped on the packaging.” Maybe you aren't the type to eat around the mold, but here are 10 things you can safely eat past their expiration dates, assuming they look and smell basically fine.

Cheese

If you think about how cheese is made and aged, you might be more apt to believe it's the kind of food that doesn't always go bad after its expiration date. Even if there is a little mold growing, consuming "expired" cheese can be safe — as long as you cut off the mold and it still smells alright. If you’ve got semi-hard or semi-soft cheeses, you’re probably good to have them two to four weeks past the expiration date (again, as long as they smell regular for what kind of cheese they are).

But watch out for softer cheeses, Sims advises. Because softies like feta and brie have more moisture, it’s not quite as simple as just cutting off a sliver of mold. “Even if you remove the mold or slime, lingering microbes can still pose a food-borne illness threat.”

Cereal

While it may begin to get a little stale, cereal has a true shelf life long beyond its printed expiration date. Like many foods, if it is stored properly — in this case, in a cool, dry place — cereal can last months after the sell-by date. Dietician and author Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., told TODAY Food in 2018 that cereals with more fat content (think nuts and oils) could go bad more quickly, though. In other words, you might want to try some before pouring yourself a whole bowl if it's expired.

Pasta

Although dry pasta already has a one-to-two-year shelf life, it can actually last much longer than that. "Store pasta in a cool, dry place either in its original packaging or in an airtight container to extend its shelf life for as long as possible,” Alyssa Pike, RD, manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, previously told Bustle. Fresh pasta, on the other hand, contains water and potentially egg, and so spoils more easily; a smell test should help you decide whether to keep or toss, but it should only hang out in your fridge for about two days.

Bread

It might get stale, but bread past its expiration date can be safely eaten. If the bread smells sour or spoiled, though, definitely don't eat it. That being said, bread that's turned a little stale and crunchy makes excellent French toast or croutons, so don't toss it out because it's "too old."

Yogurt

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Say goodbye to days of throwing out your half-eaten tub of yogurt, because this is another dairy product you can eat after its package labels it "expired." Open yogurt will spoil sooner than unopened yogurt, but sealed yogurt will usually last past the sell-by date. “I am comfortable eating yogurt one to two weeks past date as long as it doesn’t smell,” Dr. Jennifer Quinlan, food microbiologist and associate professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University, told NBC in 2018.

But that doesn’t mean you can eat all expired yogurt — you’ve still got to do your due diligence. “Food that is abnormally soft, discolored, or has an uncharacteristically unpleasant odor is likely spoiled and should be discarded,” Sims explains. So when it comes to yogurt’s expiration date, you just have to ask: Does it smell right? Is there mold in it? If not, then feel free to proceed with making your smoothie.

Chips

Like bread, potato chips may get stale past their expiration date, but they are still perfectly safe to eat. If they are in an open bag, they'll be alright until you decide the texture is too much to handle, but if the bag is sealed, it can still be good months later... as if you'd have an uneaten bag of chips laying around for that long.

Chocolate

You know that white film that forms on old chocolate? It's not mold. It's what's called "chocolate bloom" — either of the fat or sugar variety — and it can be safe to eat. If chocolate is stored in a cool place (70 degrees or below), it will outlast its sell-by date. But as with chips, what are the chances you'll have chocolate for more than, like, five minutes?

Condiments

People hate spending money on condiments like ketchup, mayo, and jam, because it seems like you can never use it all before it expires. But in reality, many condiments, including salad dressing, are consumable after their sell-by dates — again, assuming it looks and smells like it’s supposed to. "If you are healthy and don't have a sensitive stomach, you may be able to tolerate ketchup beyond the best by date," Feller says.

Frozen Food

Freezing food is the easiest way to extend its shelf life, whether it be vegetables or pastries — but that doesn’t mean freezer burn is exactly pleasant. Still, Sims tells Bustle that it’s perfectly fine to go ahead and eat that freezer-burned pizza. “Freezer-burned food is safe, but can lose flavor once cooked or thawed,” she explains. “If your frozen food has freezer burn, you don’t have to toss it. You can cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking/thawing. However, if your food is heavily freezer-burned, you may want to discard it for quality reasons.”

Prepackaged Produce

A little bruised cucumber or wilted lettuce shouldn't hurt you (as long as it smells fine), and neither should bagged salad eaten past its expiration date. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, it's simple: If it's rotten, don't eat it. And if it's just a little wilted, you could always cook or freeze it instead.

Experts:

Tamika Sims, Ph.D., senior director of food technology communications, International Food Information Council

Alyssa Pike, RD, manager of nutrition communications, International Food Information Council

Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., Brooklyn-based registered dietician and nutritionist

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