One of my favorite “games” is finding ways to use up the bits and pieces of food that seem to fill up my refrigerator: that last spoonful of tarragon mustard + a piece of roast beef + that parsley hiding in the crisper + those crackers from the back of the pantry = halfway to dinner! Or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and realize the only thing my leftover polenta needs is some of that marinara sauce that sits one shelf over.
But all of this mix-and-match fun is dependent on one fact: I can’t pay too close attention to those pesky “best by” and “expiration” dates. That mustard might technically have “expired” two months before I had the roast beef inspiration moment—and if I’d thrown it out then, where would I be? I tend to sniff, then take a taste, and if all seems normal, it’s good to go. (Except for fresh fish and meat—that’s where you really have to pay attention.)
According to NPR, those “best by” dates have to do with taste, not safety. Companies have a reputation to protect, so they don’t want to stand behind products after the quality starts to degrade, even in infinitesimal amounts that might not be noticeable to the average palate.
“If the product was designed, let’s say, to be a 7 when it was fresh, you may choose that at 6.2, it’s gotten to the point where [you] don’t want it to be on the market anymore,” says John Ruff, the president of the Institute of Food Technologists. “If it’s 6.0, would most people still find it reasonably good? Absolutely. But companies want people to taste their products as best they can at the optimum, because that’s how they maintain their business and their market shares.”
Look at it this way: a few years ago, scientists found some really old canned food, circa 1934. They gingerly opened it—and found that, except for a slight loss of nutrients, it was almost good as new!