Is Your Lunch Safe to Eat?
BY: Stacey Colino
The crackers in your cupboard are stamped “Best before September 1, 2010.” The “Sell by” date on the cheese at the supermarket is tomorrow. There’s a yogurt in your fridge with today’s date on it and an opened jar of mustard that’s been there since the Bush administration. With all the talk about food safety nowadays, you’re probably wondering what an expiration date really means -- and whether the foods they mark are safe to eat.
Believe it or not, these labels don’t have standard definitions. What’s more, many of them “have to do with the quality of the food, not necessarily the safety of the food,” explains Joy Dubost, who has a doctorate in food science and is a registered dietitian in Washington, D.C. Here’s the scoop:
- “Sell by” Don’t toss that yogurt just yet! This date was designed so grocers know when to rotate their products. Generally, with proper refrigeration and handling, it’s safe to use meats up to three days beyond the “Sell by” date, and dairy products within five days of the date. (With yogurt, which contains healthy bacteria, you can push the date by a week.)
- “Best by” or “Best before” This one’s up to your personal taste, so to speak. These dates have to do with the quality of the food, in terms of its taste, smell, look, feel and texture. There’s minimal risk to eating a food after these dates, but it may be a little stale.
- “Use by” “Take this one literally because with perishable products, safety and spoilage really are a concern,” advises Jennifer McEntire, who has a doctorate in food science and is a senior staff scientist and director of science and technology projects at the Institute of Food Technologists. This date really does have to do with both the quality of the food and safety issues.
- No date Let your nose and taste buds be your guide if there’s no date stamped on a product -- provided the can or box is not ripped, dented or compromised in some way. If it is, don’t use it.
As for leftovers and other foods that you’ve already opened, consider these guidelines:
For your stomach’s sake, use them or toss them within three days, and make sure to heat them thoroughly (ideally to 165 F) before consuming them, advises McEntire.
Mustard and ketchup are very stable because they’re acidic, so they can typically last up to a year after they’ve been opened. Salad dressings are also acidic, but because they contain oils and other ingredients that can turn rancid and produce off-flavors pretty quickly, it’s best to use them within three months of opening, Dubost says.
Peanut butter and jelly
Jellies and jams will generally keep for up to nine months, especially if you don’t double-dip. But if you’re going to dip and re-dip the same knife into a jar, change it more quickly because you might introduce food particles or bacteria into it, advises McEntire. Because of the high oil content, peanut butter may not last as long. If it doesn’t pass the sniff- and/or taste-test, you’re better off tossing it.
Finally, to get the greatest longevity from the foods in your fridge, install a thermometer and keep the temperature at 40 degrees or below.“And if you’re ever in doubt about the safety of a food,” says McEntire, “throw it out. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
Recipe of the Week
- Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt because it takes 3 to 4 times more milk to make it. Celebrate June Dairy Month with Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries.
- Bok Choy, also known as Chinese cabbage or pak choi, has been grown in China for over 6,000 years. Choose firm stalks, avoiding brown spots and wilted leaves, and add to stir-fry.
- Apple skin is full of fiber & Alzheimer’s-disease-fighting antioxidants -- so eat it! Refrigerate in a plastic bag away from foods with strong odors; they absorb odors easily.
- Collards, mustard greens and kale are available in bags, pre-washed & chopped -- so they’re easy to steam or saute! Eat your greens as a side dish or in quesadillas, soups & stews.
- Avocados are rich in 20 nutrients and great beyond guacamole. Chop for a ham, egg and cheese wrap; slice for a deli roast beef sandwich; cube and toss into linguini and shrimp.
- Black-eyed Peas: Fresh, canned and frozen varieties are all nutrient-rich options -- making it easier to eat your daily veggies. Rinse and drain canned peas to cut down on salt.
- Ugli Fruit, beautiful benefits! Peel & eat for fiber & vitamin C. Choose fruit heavy for size; dents normal and color not important. Store on counter 5 days or refrigerate 2 weeks.
- Radicchio, also known as Italian chicory, is high in vitamin K for bone health. Great in salads: Choose bright, tender leaves; avoid brown or limp ones. Refrigerate up to 3 days.
- Cherimoya, a high-fiber tropical fruit, tastes like a mix of strawberry and mango. Choose firm, unblemished fruit, cut in wedges and spoon out creamy flesh.
- Kale in lentil soup is a double dose of New Year’s luck! Round-shaped lentils symbolize coins; kale, paper money. Both are packed with antioxidants for a year of healthy fortune.
- Tea is native to China, but Americans invented tea bags and first drank iced tea at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Enjoy hot and reap health benefits from both black & green tea.
- Dried Plums (formerly prunes) may help prevent cancer and decrease inflammation. Slice fruit, stuff with cheese and walnuts, and wrap in prosciutto to make quick party appetizers.
- Oatmeal month is officially January. Cook breakfast oatmeal with 1% milk for extra protein, calcium and vitamin D -- or enjoy whole-grain oatmeal raisin cookies as a smart snack.
- Spices and herbs add antioxidants to every dish. One tsp. ground cinnamon contains as many antioxidants as 1/2 cup blueberries; 1 tsp. yellow curry as many as 1/2 cup red grapes.
- Fish, the best source of omega-3 fats for heart and brain health, may even help ward off depression. Mix canned white tuna, salmon and sardines for an omega-rich seafood salad.
- Orange juice is filled with immune-boosting nutrients that fight colds and the flu: vitamins C and B6, folate, potassium and magnesium. Choose 100% juice with no added sugar.
- Walnuts are a significant source of plant-based omega-3 fats. These fats -- also in ground flaxseed, canola oil and edamame -- provide many heart-healthy benefits.
- Pear, apple and Asian pear slices + yogurt-based dips = winning strategy for game-day parties. Combine Greek vanilla yogurt with chocolate-hazelnut spread for a fast, healthy dip.
- Pumpkin and sweet potato -- fresh, mashed or canned -- adds disease-fighting antioxidants to waffles and pancakes. Use whole-wheat flour to double your fiber and nutrient intake.
- Snack smart to achieve weight loss goals. Choose fast and fully edible fruits like grapes, apples, persimmon and kiwi. Yes, fuzzy kiwi skin is edible! Simply wash and rub dry.
What kind of water do you usually drink?