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Do You Understand Food Labels?

Allison Benson, RD, LRD, Program Assistant, NDSU Extension Service

A lot of confusion surrounds the dates on food labels. Interestingly, infant formula is the only food required by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to have a date. If manufacturers choose to put a date on a food label (although it’s not required), they must categorize it. Examples include:  “Use by”, “Best if Used by”, “Sell by” or “Expiration”.

Of these labels, the following are all food quality dates not food safety dates:

  • Use by
  • Best if used by
  • Sell by

This means the food item should be used or sold by the date on the package in order to consume it when it is at its peak quality. However, the food item is still safe to consume after this date.

You may be asking yourself, how long are foods good to eat past the date on the package? That answer is a bit more complicated. Phone apps such as “Is My Food Safe?” or “Foodkeeper” can help you understand how long your food and beverages are safe to consume. Websites such as can be used as resources. Additionally, it may be helpful to print off a chart that shows how long foods should be used and stored and keep it handy in your kitchen.

See the “Food Storage Guide”  for a wide range of storage information.

Don’t forget to use your common sense. If you see signs of spoilage such as mold growth or a foul smell coming from a food, you should throw it away and not consume it regardless of any date on the package.

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Sponsored in part by the Sanford Health Foundation.

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