What do the dates on food labels mean?

Many food products now include open dating on the label or packaging. This date helps the store know how long to display a product. It also helps consumers know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. The most common labels are sell-by, use-by and expiration date. Here's what they mean:
  • Sell-by Date -- This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. Buy the product before the date expires.
  • Use-by Date -- This is the last date the product will maintain its optimum freshness, flavor and texture.
  • Expirations Date -- If you haven't used the product by this date, it's time to toss it.
Rose Reisman
Nutrition & Dietetics
Every day we shop we see our foods stamped with “best before dates”. We usually pay more attention when we’re dealing with those foods that only last a few days.

But what do these dates actually mean?
  • The date tells you about the shelf life of any food that will keep fresh for 90 days or less. It doesn’t have to mean that the food will harm you after this date, but rather that the ultimate freshness will not be there which may affect taste, texture, flavor and nutrients.
  • Refrigerating a food will extend the shelf life by slowing down the bacterial growth, but doesn’t stop it. Freezing will stop bacterial growth and extend the expiry date. But often freezing reduces the quality of the food.
  • “Packaged on” dates are mandatory on meat products.
  • “Expiry dates” are necessary on fortified foods such as infant formula and orange juice. It is illegal to sell a product after the expiry date due to the nutrients degrading.
  • The old adage, When in doubt, throw out is a good motto to keep in mind.
Toby Smithson
Nutrition & Dietetics

There are three types of dates you may see on a food label; sell by, best if used by or pack date. Sell by indicates the last day the store can sell the food to ensure its freshness. Best if used by is suggested for optimal quality. It will be safe to use after that date but you will get the best quality by that date. Pack date is when the food was manufactured, processed or packaged. If you need to return a product to the store because of poor quality, often the manufacturer will ask about this date on the package.

The FDA mandates that whenever you see a date on the label, there must be a phrase next to it that tells you how to interpret it.

  • If you see "Sell By," you should purchase the product on or before that date for best quality.
  • If you see "Best if Used By," consume the product by this time in order to enjoy it at its best.
  • If you see "Use By," consume or freeze it by this date.

Keep in mind that the date on the food package does not refer to food safety, but to the quality of the food. Of course, any food that has spoiled and gives off an off odor or appearance, regardless of the date, should be discarded as the quality has deteriorated.


Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
There are different types of dates on food labels to indicate freshness: the sell-by date, the use-by date and the best-by date. Watch registered dietician Frances Largeman-Roth explain the differences, and what to keep in mind when buying groceries.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.