How Confusing Labels Could Lead You to Waste Money at the Supermarket

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  • Many consumers throw food away before they really have to.
  • Often, your food will last longer than manufacturers say it will.

If your head is spinning, you're not alone.

These days, inflation is driving living costs up across the board. And that extends to groceries.

Many people are racking up sky-high credit card tabs to stock up on essentials at the supermarket. And worse yet, they're falling into the trap of tossing goods prematurely, thereby wasting money in the process.

But are consumers to blame for food waste? Not entirely. While some of us could do a better job of taking inventory at home before shopping and planning out meals to avoid food waste, often, we're pushed to throw out products prematurely due to the confusing manner in which they're labeled.

Are food labels leading you astray?

Walk the supermarket aisles, and you'll probably notice a number of different labeling conventions on the items you commonly buy. Some items might have a "sell by" date. Others might have a "best buy" date. And then there are those with an "enjoy by" date.

All of these labels can be extremely confusing, because they can make it very difficult to determine when food needs to be tossed versus when it's safe to eat. And because there's no national standard for determining how product expiration dates are assigned, manufacturers can use the language of their choice -- even if it's hard to decipher.

Take "enjoy by," for example. If a food item has an "enjoy by Aug. 15" label on it, does that mean that item will no longer be enjoyable come Aug. 16? And in that case, will consumers simply get less pleasure out of eating it, or will it be downright unsafe?

It's hard to know. And that's why it's so important to get to the bottom of things -- to avoid wasting money on tossed-out products.

How to navigate food labels

It's a big misconception that a food item's "sell by" date is the last date it can be consumed. Rather, the "sell by" date is simply the date manufacturers recommend eating their product by -- perhaps to optimize taste or freshness. But to be clear, a food item with a "sell by" date of Aug. 15 may very well be safe for consumption on Aug. 25. As such, you can use a "sell by" date as a guideline or suggestion rather than gospel.

That said, you can generally take more liberties with canned goods and packaged items than with dairy, meat, and produce. If you buy poultry with a "sell by" date of Aug. 15, you probably want to try to cook or freeze it by that date. But that doesn't mean you have to consume it by that date. You can cook your chicken on the 15th and eat it for the next few days.

Of course, it's always important to use common sense in conjunction with expiration dates to determine whether a given item is safe to eat. If you have milk at home with a "sell by" date of Aug. 15, but it smells and tastes fine on Aug. 18, go ahead and drink it. But if that milk smells sour or pours out in clumps on Aug. 14, toss it.

Are changes in the works?

Late last year, the Food Date Labeling Act of 2021 was introduced, and its aim is to get manufacturers to utilize the terms "use by" or "best if used by" only on products. The logic is that more consistent labeling language could lead to less food waste. So far, that bill has yet to become law. But if it does, it could help to spare consumers a world of thrown-out food -- and money.

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