The Best Before Myth


Yes I’m on my hobby horse again, I’ve still got the bug bear about food waste and I noted with avid interest an article in last weeks Guardian about the average cost of food we Brits throw away every month.  Apparently, we throw away twice as much food as we think we do, in total, its an astounding £58.30’s worth per month.  I can’t imagine any other circumstances under which you would be happy to put 3 £20 notes in the food bin every month?  It is as though once money has been exchanged for a physical object, in this case food, it loses its monetary value in our minds.

This article tied in with a blog post on food wastage I wrote several months ago, but highlighted a new issue, that most people dispose of food based on “sell by” and “best before” dates printed on the packaging, regardless of the visible condition of the food.

Supermarkets and manufacturers are required by law to display a date of expiry, which is usually a guide.  Sometimes they get it right but invariably the food still has a number of day’s life before it is not fit for consumption.  This self-preservation tactic employed by the vast majority of food companies means that the date on a package is often days, weeks and even months earlier than the food’s true shelf life.

The best way to judge is by sight.  The visual appearance, particularly for fruit and vegetables, is usually instantly recognisable.  With proteins such as cheese and yoghurt, the dates can usually extend by at least a week or so.  Milk is usually fine for a few days.  When it comes to other proteins such as poultry, meat, fish etc…. there is often a little lea way but smell is the best way to judge.  Eggs are usually good for at least 5-7 days post the date and ambient products such as noodles, pasta and canned foods are usually good for at least 6 months past the date.

People often seem to confuse the meanings of each type of label, and act on them all in the same way.  In reality, “sell by”, “best before”, “use by” and “expires on” dates are not all the same thing.

For example “Expires on” is probably the one date listing you should actually pay attention to, and is generally found on the packaging of things such as baby food and medication.  This kind of date is usually imposed by a medical board and involves you or your child’s physical well being.

“Sell by” dates are the date by which a product must be sold, and therefore removed from the supermarket shelf by law.  This isn’t a time limit for you as the consumer, I have often times used carrots, onions, and potatoes 10 days or more after their date perfectly well.

What “best before” and “use by” states is how long an item will remain at its optimum freshness or quality whilst still in the packaging, again its not a time frame of safeness to eat.  For example, if you open a packet of mushrooms, and their best before date is a week later, they could still go bad before that due to being exposed, negating the value of their use by date anyway.

Think about it another way, only 1.5 times our average monthly wastage would buy you a Nutri-bullet, and then you could throw half the usual wasted fruit and veg into the Nutri-bullet to create healthy soups and smoothies!  Now that makes sense to me.

Furthermore, if a food item is getting close to the date or deterioration before you have the chance to use it then FREEZE IT

In my opinion?  Ignore the date on the label and take a look at the food itself. If it’s furry or harbouring tiny wildlife, you should probably throw it away.  If it looks fine, it mostly likely is, so save yourself some money, use what you need,  then wrap it up and freeze the rest.

Cook’s Tip:

Left over vegetables or fruit that don’t look so pretty anymore can be frozen and kept to throw in a blender later.  Perfect for days when you haven’t had time to go shopping or it’s a tight month.


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