Is it safe to eat foods past expiration date? Oh, yeah
Pittsburgh — Don’t toss out those remaining eggs in the carton or dump the pasteurized milk or pitch the can of peas just because the date on the label has expired.
They are probably safe to be consumed.
Shoppers have been panic buying canned vegetables and beans, fresh meats, flour and eggs during the COVID-19 outbreak. Now the stockpiling has left them with another kind of a concern.
How soon should they consume the foods? Do they strictly abide by the “best by,” “use by” or “sell by” dates or use them sometime later? And for how long can they be kept?
We turned to three experts to weigh in about the actual longevity of foods with date labels.
Laura Frost, who teaches microbiology, immunology and general biology at Point Park University, Megan Watts, a dietitian at Allegheny Health Network, and Caroline Passerrello, an instructor at University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition, all opined that the dates are guidelines for taste and quality and not safety.
While the store should be mindful of the dates, it does not mean that the items are not acceptable for purchase, Passerrello points out.
“Best by” or “use by” date labels is more about the freshness and not so much about the safety of the content, Frost says. “It is the manufacturer’s best guess at which date the food will be at its freshest.”
Watts concurs, saying: “The manufacturer is giving the buyer an idea of when the quality will diminish.”
Although most items can be consumed well after the stamped date, Passerrello cautions baby formula is an exception. “After the expiration date, it may not have the nutrients in it,” she says.
Here are their suggestions of how long foods will last from the stamped date:
Canned tomatoes: Tomatoes are acidic and can be kept six months or a year after the date on the can. “No stuff would grow on them,” Frost says. “The quality will decrease over time, but that doesn’t mean it is less safe.” Canned fruits such as pineapple and peaches also have high acidity, Watts says, and so can keep 12 to 18 months unopened.
Canned vegetables: They keep well for at least one to two years. Make sure the cans are not punctured or swollen, Frost says, as that indicates that gas has built up.
Canned soups: Typically, they can be kept for six months to one year in a pantry, but the shelf life varies depending on the ingredients. In a chicken dumpling soup, for example, the carrots might disintegrate over time. “They are not bad or inedible, but the shape and texture won’t hold up,” Frost says. Remember to rotate through your soup cans, Passerrello advises, and use the ones in the back of the cupboard first.
Soups in cartons and packets: If you are using soup from a carton beyond the “use by” date, let your nose be your guide, Frost says, and check for cloudiness and odor. Once it is opened, store the soup in the refrigerator and use it within two weeks. Dehydrated and dried soups keep for a very long time.
Rice and grains: It is best to transfer the contents from the box to an airtight container because otherwise they will lose their flavor over time. If they are stored in a dry and cool area, they can last one-and-a-half to two years. Cooked rice should be stored in the fridge and consumed within three to four days, Watts says.
Dry pasta: It can keep for one year if opened and for one-and-a-half to two years if the box is unopened. Pastas made with eggs have a shorter shelf life than the ones without them, Watts says.
Flour: Stored in a cool and dry place, all-purpose flour can last for six to 12 months unopened. Once it is opened, its shelf life is reduced to six to eight months. It is best to transfer it to an airtight container. Discolorization and odor are telltale signs that the flour has gone bad. Whole-grain flour has some fat and so has a shorter shelf life, Passerrello says. Keep alt-flours, like almond and coconut, in the fridge, Watts says, to prolong their life.
Dried beans and lentils: They can last for a good one-and-half-years from the stamped date if stored properly and if kept bug-free. “Beyond that, you might not have the best ham and soup, but it will be safe to eat,” Frost says.
Sugar: When kept in a dry place, it won’t clump up and can last for 18 months. Other sweeteners like maple syrup can keep for a long period of time as long as it is sealed and away from direct sunlight. “Once it is opened, that’s when the clock starts ticking,” says Frost. “Refrigerate it and use the syrup within six months.”
Oils: Most vegetable oils are best when consumed within three to five months after they are opened. They can be kept up to two years unopened after which they will go rancid, Frost says. If the oil looks cloudy, it’s not a good sign. Shortenings also can be kept up to two years.
Alt butters: After it is opened, peanut butter will stay fresh for two to three months in the pantry. Peanut and almond butters can keep in the pantry for one year unopened. During this time, it is normal for the butter to harden and the oil to separate and rise to the top.
Cereal: Unopened cereal can last six months to a year, Passerrello says. Once the box is opened, consume the cereal within one month. It might lose the crunch and become soft or stale after that, but it is not unsafe, Frost says.
Boxed cake, cookie and pancake mixes: Typically they keep 12 to 18 months unopened. But the baked goods might turn out flat if they are kept beyond the date on label. When Passerrello buys a large box of pancake mix, she uses it all up at one time and freezes the pancakes, placing a piece of parchment paper between each one.
Chips, cookies, crackers: Packaged munchies will last three to four months unopened but will go stale quickly once opened. Commercial cakes and muffins are at their best when consumed within three to seven days when left in the pantry, seven to 10 days in the fridge and six months in the freezer, Watts says.
Milk: Once opened, milk can last for four to seven days after the “sell by” date. Unopened milk will keep for a week. However, if it smells sour, it’s time to pitch the milk. The date indicates the peak freshness of the milk and not the exact date that it will go bad, Frost says. Alt milks, especially those in Tetra Paks, have a longer shelf life, Watts says.
Butter: It stays fresh for one to two months in the refrigerator and six to nine months when frozen. It can be left at room temperature for one to two days.
Eggs: They can keep for one month after the date stamped on the carton. After they are boiled and are still in the shell, they last for one week. Peeled eggs should be consumed the same day, Frost says.
Meats: It all depends on the cut and type of meat, Watts says. For instance, it is best to consume pork loin within three to five days when stored in the fridge and four to 12 months when stored in the freezer. Beef short ribs, on the other hand, can keep three to five days in the fridge and four to 12 months in the freezer. Chicken breasts or thighs are best when used within one to two days after being in the refrigerator and nine to 10 months in the freezer. Whole chicken can be kept for one year in the freezer. Ground chicken, turkey, pork and beef all are best when consumed within one to two days when kept in the fridge and three to four months in the freezer.
Lunch meats: “Hard meats like salami and pepperoni are drier and will last two weeks, but it’s best to keep soft deli meats like ham, turkey and bologna for four to five days max,” Frost says.
Nuts: Unshelled pecans and walnuts are best when stored in the refrigerator or freezer even when unopened. They keep for two to four weeks in the pantry, nine to 12 months in the refrigerator and 24 months in the freezer.
Jams and preserves: Sugars are a playground for bacteria and that’s why jams and preserves spoil, Frost says. Use an opened bottle that is in the refrigerator within a few months and a unopened bottle in the pantry within a year.
Condiments: The shelf life varies for the different condiments after they are opened. Ketchup should be used within five to six months, mayonnaise within six to eight weeks, mustard within six to eight months and dressings, olives and pickles within two to three months.
Seafood: Fresh seafood should be used within three to four days when stored in the refrigerator and one to two months when stored in the freezer. Shell fish can keep for three to 10 days in the refrigerator. Deli seafood should be used within one or two days.
Fruit juices: Consume juices within six to 10 days after the bottle or carton is opened, Frost says. “Juices have a lot of sugar and bacteria loves that.”
Vegetables: “They can maintain taste/texture for about six to eight months past the ‘use by’ date,” Frost says. “This is because they are frozen while they are at their peak freshness.”
Ice cream: It is safe to keep unopened ice cream for up to two or three months past the expiration date, provided it is properly frozen, Frost says. “Once opened, it can safely remain in the freezer for about three weeks,” she adds. “I know I’ve exceeded that mark.”
Frozen dinners and breakfasts: “This one is difficult to answer,” Frost says. “My thoughts are that since most of these prepared meals contain both proteins and vegetables, they will likely remain tasty for three to four months past the “use by” date.”