Expired food: When is it safe and when do you throw it out?

Published On: Feb 21 2013 11:23:38 AM CST

Feb. 20, 2013: Expiration dates tell you about a food item's quality, but also whether it's safe to consume. Amy Davis reports.

Let's face it -- we all have expired food in our pantry or fridge.

But with terms like Sell By, Use By, or Best Buy -- expiration dates can be confusing and they can also leave your family wondering if the expired food in your home is safe to eat.

Louis Nichols and his mother, Joan say they're in a constant fight over food.

"I got cans that are like two years old. I had soup the other day and it was fine," says Louis Nichols.

"Whether it's a month old or a week old, it should be gone," says Joan Nichols.

The Maitland family knows how to stretch a dollar, often leaving them with a kitchen full of expired food.

"If it's on sale, sometimes we get so much of it, and we don't realize it," says Louis Nichols.

That's when Joan Nichols sweeps in and raids every cabinet.

It's the same story in homes across America -- what to keep, and what to toss. For answers, we turned to Tara Gidus, a registered dietician and food expert in Winter Park, Fla.

"The purpose of dating is really two-fold. One is going to be quality, and another is going to be safety," says Gidus.

Here are her guidelines:

  • Food in your pantry should be safe to eat up to a year after its expiration date.

The only thing you'll notice is the quality, according to Gidus.

"That cereal isn't going to be dangerous for you to eat after that particular date, but it may not be quite as fresh or taste quite as good," says Gidus.

Louis Nichols agrees -- especially when it comes to soup.

"Anything in a can will eventually start tasting like metal, that metal taste," says Louis Nichols.

  • Food in your fridge is less predictable.

Gidus says you shouldn't keep dairy products longer than a month after their expiration dates.

"You're talking about potential bacteria, and something that has gone bad and can cause food-borne illness," says Gidus. "When in doubt, throw it out. So if it smells bad, looks bad, has changed color, definitely throw it away."

  • For processed foods that have a lot of preservatives in them, food scientists say that you have some leeway.

Pickles can last up to three months after their expiration date. You can also add three months to salad dressing, and six months to chocolate syrup. Jellies and jams can last a year.

That said, the fight over expired food for the Nichols is likely to last at least for now.

Gidus says you can make food in your fridge last longer by keeping it in the way back, and not on the door.

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