The Difference Between Confusing Food Labels - Home & Texture
Kitchen Food Labels

The Difference Between "Best By," "Use By," and Other Confusing Food Labels

Get familiar with food labels to clear up the confusion so you'll always know when it's time to eat or toss your favorite foods.

January 5, 2024 at 7:45 AM PST

Have you ever come across a condiment in the fridge or fished out a forgotten pack of some seasonal delicacy from the back of your pantry only to discover it was past its “use by,” “best by,” or some other suggestion that it was past its prime? And then, did you roll the dice and consume it anyway? Guilty. You may think that all of the food labels mean the same thing, but it turns out—nope, they are indeed not created equal. It seems like a complex, cryptic puzzle, but it’s time to demystify exactly what they mean once and for all. Here is some clarity around food labels and what they mean so you know what to keep and what to toss.

Family looking at groceries
Photo Credit: Greta Hoffman

Best By: The Peak of Freshness

These labels are commonly found on a variety of packaged foods, and they’re like a gentle nudge from your food item, encouraging you to enjoy it at its absolute peak of freshness and flavor. “Best By” dates are more about quality than safety. So, when that date has come and gone, your cereal might lose a bit of its crunch, or your canned soup might not be as savory, but rest assured, they are still more than likely safe to consume.

Use By: The Grim Expiration Date

The “Use By” label is a stern warning from your food item, saying, “Hey, consume me by this date, or things could get risky.” You’ll often find these on perishable items like dairy products and meats. Beyond the date, you may be venturing into the uncharted waters of spoilage and potential food-borne illnesses, so it’s wise to proceed with caution and not let these dates slip by unnoticed.

Sell By: A Retailer’s Reminder

Unlike the previous two, this date is more for the retailers than consumers. When you see a “Sell By” date on a product, it’s essentially a signal to the store to have it off their shelves. You can often find perfectly edible items with a “Sell By” date if you act swiftly, making this label less of a concern for the average consumer.

Expires On: The Final Countdown

Lastly, there’s the “Expires On” date, which leaves no room for ambiguity. It’s a clear-cut deadline, and consuming the item beyond this point may not be the wisest decision. You’ll typically find this label on items where safety is of utmost importance, such as medications and baby formula. When it says it expires on a certain date, it means just that – it’s time to bid adieu.

Photo credit: White.Rainforest ™︎ ∙ 易雨白林.

Where Did Food Labels Come From?

The concept of food labeling dates back centuries, with early civilizations marking their products in rudimentary ways. Ancient Egyptians, for example, used hieroglyphics to label jars of grain and other commodities. These inscriptions not only identified the contents but also provided important information about the origin and quality of the products.

During the Middle Ages, European cities began implementing food regulations. In England, for instance, the Assize of Bread and Ale was enacted in the 13th century, setting standards for the quality of bread and ale and requiring bakers and brewers to mark their products with distinctive stamps.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and we see the dawn of modern food labeling. With the rise of industrialization and mass production, there was a pressing need for standardized labeling to protect consumers and ensure product quality.

Modern Food Labeling

In the 1970s, manufacturers widely embraced date labels as a response to growing consumer concerns about product freshness. As people became increasingly aware of the need to make informed choices about the foods they consumed, date labels such as “Best By” and “Used By” emerged as valuable tools.

These labels not only helped consumers gauge the quality and safety of their purchases but also provided a sense of transparency and trust between manufacturers and consumers. This pivotal shift in the food industry’s approach to labeling marked a significant step toward enhancing food safety and ensuring that consumers could enjoy their products with confidence.



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