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Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter?

Experts provide a guide to the variety of confusing 'freshness' dates on food.

When Do Other Vital Items Go Bad? continued...

Some critics have accused drug manufacturers of hyping these dates to encourage more drug sales. Goldhammer implies that some drugs may be OK longer than noted, but the manufacturers have not done, say, a 10-year study of how long the drug is good. "They try to establish a reasonable date to allow for time in the supply chain and pharmacy shelves," he says.

The chemicals in drugs do break down and change over time, becoming more potent (or poisonous) or ineffective. "One of the worst places to store them," Goldhammer offers, "is in the medicine cabinet, which can be hot and humid. Consumers should not let drugs sit around. Why do you think most companies sell them a month or at most three months ahead of time?"

VanLandingham also notes that humidity can hurt drugs. "That's why they have cotton in them," he explains.

What about condoms, where a misjudgment could be disastrous? All condoms, the FDA says, have either an expiration or a manufacturing date. They should not be used beyond the expiration date -- more than five years after the date of manufacture.

The sweetener aspartame, another common item often found in sodas, does break down and become icky-tasting, so don't buy or drink old products containing it.

Stretching the Expiration Date Through Proper Storage

VanLandingham is picky about letting food get too hot. The "temperature danger zone" is between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Food needing refrigeration should be kept below 41 degrees. On the loading dock, in the car, on the kitchen table, it should not be outside of that temperature for more than four hours total. You have no idea how long it may have been subjected to higher temperatures before you buy it, so you need to minimize the "standing" factor after you get it.

"One of the biggest mistakes consumers make is lag time," VanLaanen agrees. For details, she highly recommends Safe Home Food Storage, a Texas A&M book available from tcebookstore.org.

VanLandingham also warns that most fridges usually aren't holding at 41 degrees or less. "Don't forget recovery time," he says. That's the time it takes to recool after you stand there trying to find a cold beer or decide whether anyone will miss the last piece of cake.

Milk should be kept at 38 degrees, fish at 32 degrees. The drawers and shelves have different temperatures, thus the term "meat drawer."

VanLaanen urges consumers to scribble on their own date of purchase, even on canned goods.

Don't be too cautious. "Some people keep apples five days and go, "Oops, time to go,'" VanLandingham says. "They may still be in mint condition."

He recommends using your senses (this would be the "Honey, sniff this" thing) to decide if an item is fresh.

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