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Green Goodness
  • Writer's pictureSylvia Meo, R.D.

Better Understanding Date Labels and How to Store Food to Reduce Food Waste

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

Did you know that food loss and waste is an increasing issue in Canada? Sure, I too can be guilty of tossing some food occasionally because it has unfortunately lost its appeal in color or smell, but I honestly wasn’t aware of how bad it really was. In fact, we are among the worst countries when it comes to food loss and waste, the average Canadian throws out roughly 374 pounds (170 kg) of food per year. Food waste costs the Canadian economy 31 billion dollars and creates 21 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, etc.), mainly from landfills, which is at the root of global climate change and is having important impacts on our environment, economy and human health. The largest part of food waste, 47% according to the Food Waste in Canada Study, comes from us throwing out food at home, and confusion surrounding food labelling may be a big part of the problem! Let’s do something about it!

Best Before Dates, Expiry Dates, What do They Really Mean?

Many people actually confuse the two and many think these dates are a deadline and automatically toss the food when it has reached that date. How many times has my husband cringed at me for eating yogurt or even serving it to our daughter close to the best before date, when in fact we can consume it even past that date! As long as the package has remained untouched, the “best before” dates don’t refer to food safety but rather the sensory qualities of the food (smell, appearance, texture, taste, mouthfeel, etc.). This is why you may find a section in a store where there are some discounted foods that are sold because their best before date has passed. Think of it as the date before which you want to eat the product in order to eat it at its prime! In Canada, best before dates must be added to prepackaged foods that will stay fresh for 90 days or less. This date ensures the consumer that the manufacturer guarantees that his properly sealed and packaged product will be of highest quality, freshness, taste and nutritional value (as indicated in the nutrition value table) until that specified date.

“Expiry” dates are a bit more serious if you want; they tell us that consuming the product past that date may not provide us with the nutrients expected of the product and should be discarded and not bought, sold or consumed past that date. Think of products or foods that will have these expiry dates as products that are sold to help you meet specific nutritional needs or are critical to your health (meal replacements, formulated liquid diets used for oral or tube feeding, infant formulas, baby food, nutritional supplements, etc.).

My 10 Golden Rules to Help You Waste Less

1. Don’t over buy, keep your refrigerator in order and maybe even keep a list of what’s in there to help you better plan your meals!

2. Know how to properly read a best before date. Many get confused and mistake the year for the day or a month for another and end up throwing out the food way before its due time. Essentially, the year is optional, but if it is shown it is the first number you see. Then comes the month, which is often just two letters and they should be in both official languages or a bilingual symbol will be used, example MR for March or mars (in French), MA for May or “mai” (in French). Finally, the number after the month corresponds to the day. So, 18AU22 stands for August 22nd, 2018.

3. Always check the “best before” and “expiry” dates on foods prior to placing them in your grocery cart and for the freshest products select the ones with a date that is furthest from your purchase date.

4. Rule of thumb: Once the package has been opened or the seal broken, the best before and expiry dates are no longer valid and you need to use your own judgment. For instance, if the best before date on your milk carton says September 10th 2018 and you open it on August 20th 2018, it does NOT mean the milk will last for the next 40 days and that you can safely consume it during that whole period! If the smell, color or taste starts to change, you know it’s time to part with it.

5. In the case of foods that can spoil more quickly than others:

a) Meat, fish/seafood and poultry should be eaten as quickly as possible or stored properly in the freezer prior to the best before date by removing it from its original package and rewrapping it tightly to avoid harmful microorganisms from developping. If you are using a resealable bag make sure to squeeze out as much air as possible and properly seal the bag. The same goes for deli meats and bacon.

b) Keep your raw or to be defrosted meat, poultry, fish and seafood on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. In case there is accidental spillage, the raw juices won’t drip on and waste other foods. c) Eggs, butter and milk should ideally be stored on the top shelves or in the back of the fridge where it is colder and the temperature is most constant, rather than in the refridgerator door compartments where the temperature can easily be 3 to 5 degrees warmer than the inside shelves. d) If you buy bigger quantities of cheese, butter or cream, know that these can easily be stored in the freezer and then thawed and used for cooking. Lower moisture dairy products like butter and hard cheeses are more forgiving and can be kept in the refrigerator for a little while.

6. Often times, you will also find a “packaged on” date next to the “best before” date, this just means that the food was packaged at the retail store where you are shopping and not by the manufacturer. The best before date is the one that you need to consider in this case.

7. It has been estimated that 53% of the time we toss fruits and vegetables because they don’t look as good as they did when we first bought them, but that they are actually edible. Do not overcrowd your crisper drawers and make sure to keep your fruits and vegetables in separate drawers as fruit emits a ripening agent that can quickly ripen and spoil neighboring vegetables!

a) Start by using and eating the most perishable items first, for example zucchinis and asparagus should be eaten before cauliflower and brussel sprouts.

b) Here is a quick tip to revive your vegetables that have started to wilt and/or are limp: trim or cut off the ends and soak them in the refrigerator either in cold or even ice water for about an hour! c) If that doesn’t work for you, use them up in a sauce or soup or even an omelet! Fruits that have softened or seem too ripe can quickly be turned into a compote or fruit sauce, or blended into a smoothie.

d) Make sure to never wash your berries or remove their stems until you plan on eating them, and if you want to increase their lifespan, keep them in a container lined with paper towels or a brown paper bag to absorb any excess moisture. After losing one too many containers of mixed salad greens I started using this technique and would add a paper towel on top of my mixed prepackaged salads. I'm happy to say it actually works and has definitely stopped these little greens from rotting way too quickly.

e) Vegetables like potatoes, onions, garlic and winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, buttercup, etc.) should be stored in a cool dark place rather than in the refrigerator.

8. Store frozen foods in the freezer and when comes time to defrost them, ideally do so in the refrigerator. If you need to use the food right away, you can also defrost it in the sink under cold running water.

9. Some products have a shelf life greater than 90 days and are not required to show a best before date because they are considered to be shelf stable. Such foods include chips, cookies, canned foods, pasta, frozen foods, etc. Although, many such products still show a best before date, in this case all the date is indicating is that for ultimate freshness you should eat it before the specified date, but you clearly don’t have to worry about eating these types of foods even weeks later as long as they don’t smell rancid or look any different.

a) Dry goods and canned foods should be stored in a cool, dry place, like your pantry. Once opened do verify the label as some foods need to be refrigerated once opened.

b) The contents of cans that have been opened but not completely used should be transferred in an air tight container and stored in the refrigerator to prevent it from spoiling.

c) Baking goods purchased in bags (flour, cornmeal, sugar) should ideally be transferred to airtight containers once the package has been opened to ensure freshness.

d) When it comes to nuts, seeds and whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole wheat flour, wheat bran, etc.), many of us don’t buy the smaller bags or packages and unless you plan on using and finishing the product quickly, I would strongly urge you to store these in your freezer. Why? These are all foods that are high in nutrients and oils, in other words, if not properly stored they can go rancid and spoil pretty fast. Store them in an airtight container, jar or bag. The same goes for nut flours!

e) Items that have active ingredients in them (baking powder, yeast, etc.) follow the use-by date on them.

10. Finally, if you just can’t seem to reduce food waste at home, compost your food scraps rather than throw them away. Sure it is an extra thing to do, but by doing so you are removing these wastes from landfills where they not only take up space but emit methane into the atmosphere, a potent greenhouse gas. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and lowers your carbon footprint. It is our responsibility, think of it as the legacy you leave behind for future generations! If you are new to composting or still unsure of what you can or can’t toss in the basket, or simply need tips and advice on how to keep it “clean”, click here for more details.


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