A New York Times piece from James Beard-winning chef and cookbook writer J. Kenji López-Alt should once and for all answer the question: Should you pay attention to expiration dates on commercially sold foods?
The answer—as your annoying coworker who only shops at Whole Foods has tried to tell you for years—is no. Expiration dates are voluntary except in the case of baby foods (which you shouldn't be eating anyway. Okay, maybe just bananas. Those are good.). Expiration dates have more to do with when the food was packaged than when it will actually go bad, leading to a ridiculous amount of food waste by those who follow those dates. That is somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of perfectly good food trashed due to expiration date uncertainty.
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In the case of foods like milk, eggs, bread, canned goods, and other grocery staples, your eyes, nose, and tongue are a better guide than the mostly arbitrary date stamps on the packaging. If The Last of Us apocalypse hits, you should still be fine using flour pretty much forever. Canned goods that aren't in bent or rusted or bloated containers will be fine to consume, like, 20 years from now. And spices may lose potency, but won't harm you at all. López-Alt says he uses "past-expiration" items for cooking all the time, like "the two-gallon tin of roasted sesame oil that I’ve been working through since 2006."
If your milk is sour and clumpy, for sure don't ingest it—but don't throw out eggs if they don't smell bad yet. Mustard is goddamn indestructible, according to López-Alt, and mayonnaise lasts much longer than you'd think if it's not out on a hot picnic day. And the chef blows our mind by giving his tip for gourmet fresh breads you buy at the farmer's market or high-end bakery: Slice the loaf up and freeze that sucker, then defrost and toast one slice at a time as needed! You're welcome for that bread hack, this sourdough loaf is gonna be with me til November.
Also good to know: food in metal containers lasts longer than food in glass containers, and those last longer than food in plastic containers. So, take heart, doomsday preppers. You are a lot more likely to die from zombie bites or your asshole neighbors shooting you than from a bad bottle of olive oil.
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