Best before, not absolutely deadly from
Taking the risk that you will find me gross and never want to eat anything I offer you anymore, I have to #Saywhatis on this topic.
When I was 20 years old, during my internship at the European Space Agency in The Netherlands, I got shocked about the large amounts of perfectly edible food that I observed colleagues would throw away. After parties, for example, they often wouldn’t bother to pack and store the leftovers properly because it is easier to just toss them in the bin. What shocked me most, however, was when I saw friends throwing away unopened food “because it expired.”
In those situations, I would point out that labels read “best before”, and not “absolutely deadly from”. Years later I have found German memes making exactly the same point. Some of my friends were surprised about that because they thought that “best before the expiration date” meant automatically that the food was rotten past that date. Possibly toxic.
However, how would that work?
“Food doesn’t magically anticipate that it should be expired by a certain date,” I usually say. Sometimes food goes bad even before the expiration date: would you eat it if it looked rotten just because the packaging reads it should still be good?
I usually don’t receive a satisfying answer, and few of those convinced that “best before” is a natural law seem to show any regret about wasting food that would still be perfectly good to eat. This is because we live in a throw-away society, where it is okay to throw food away just because we don’t feel like eating it anymore or because most of us believe that “expired” means unsafe to eat. We behave like this because we can afford it. However, even if we can afford it, this habit wastes resources and is bad for the environment. A Freshmag article gives an idea of the magnitude of this waste:
“The amount of food being wasted is estimated to be enough to feed millions daily. Most of the discarded foods are mainly fruits, vegetables and baked goods. Which are usually still edible […]. There are many factors to consider not just the product itself, but also the energy exerted into production, processing, packaging, transport and storage. Food wastage creates scarcity and further on price increase on raw materials.”
To avoid wasting food I rely on my senses to determine whether something is still good to eat. I look at it, and if it looks good, I smell it. If it smells good, I taste it, and if it tastes good, it is most likely neither expired nor harmful for my body. This strategy has never failed me, and I have never experienced any consequences on my body after eating “expired” food. The sensory test help me overcome the confusion over the way different countries label expired food, a convention that is not well regulated anyway.
How long can food remain edible after the expiration date depends on the type of food and the packaging. If they are unopened, packages of canned and dried food like Chinese noodles can generally be eaten even years after the expiry date. Unopened yogurt and eggs are generally still good for eating weeks after the deadline. Chocolate might turn white and changes taste, but it doesn’t become harmful for our body. In fact, most of the time the “best before” date is about taste, quality and nutrient level. While those factors might decrease over time, the product may still be safe to eat. However, with perishable goods such as fresh fish or meat one needs to be more careful. There are websites where you can check how long specific food items usually last beyond expiry, however I would still recommend to base your final decision on your senses and your common sense.
Some friends of mine mock me for my habit of eating expired food that I know is still edible. Some of them even ask me how old the is food I serve them every time I invite them to my home. While I wouldn’t offer anything that I wouldn’t eat myself, I admit that this lack of trust embarrasses me because it makes me feel cheap. Nevertheless, I just don’t have the heart to throw away food that is perfectly good to eat just because of the misconception surrounding food labels and because we feel we can afford it.
How do you feel about food waste? Do you have methods of decreasing waste of edible resources? Share them in the comments – I am curious!
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 13th June 2022