December 29, 2012

Don’t Throw That Yogurt Out – The Science Behind Expiration Dates

Did you know that there is a scientific establishment in California that tests foods specifically for their best dates? Yep, it is call the National Food Lab. National Public Radio reported on the science of best buy dates for food. Scientists at this lab specifically put food on shelves for days, weeks, or even months at a time to test their shelf and eating life. Sometimes they manipulate the temperature to study that effect on the foods as well.

Then they take the foods down and have food testers—official tasters of the food, trained to identify food quality—taste the food and give each item a food grade in numbers. Food companies will then take the food grades and create their own scale for when food is best to be sold and on the shelf.

For many the best buy date on food packaging is misleading because they interpret that to mean that food must be eaten by that date or else it goes bad, becomes inedible. This is not true, though. The best buy and expiration dates produced by the National Food Lab and food companies shows when the food companies feel their food will be the best, the tastiest. Those dates do not mean that the foods have gone off or are bad to eat after that date.

This confusion creates a problem in waste, I think. So many people will throw foods away simply because it is a day after the date on the packaging. The truth is, though, that most foods stay good for far longer than their shelf life date. Let’s take yogurt for instance. By nature, yogurt is a food that can stay edible for quite some time. It is, after all, prepared from milk that has been fermented with bacteria. Anything that’s been fermented usually gets better with time. Yogurt is no different.

However, each tub of yogurt will always have an expiration or shelf-life date on it. I have known many an individual who almost threw out perfectly delicious yogurt simply because of the date on the tub. Naturally, I showed them that yogurt stays good far past the shelf life. It is pretty easy to tell if yogurt is bad. First of all, it will smell terrible, or so I am told. If you are like me and cannot smell, then have someone else smell it. I have even just taken a quick taste. Don’t eat an entire spoonful; just take a little dab and taste it. You will know if it’s bad. Sometimes it even looks bad. It curdles or has a weird texture. I assure you, though, that won’t happen for a long a time after the date suggested by the food companies.

Yogurt is not the only food that can be eaten far longer than the date states on the package. Cheese, meats, fruits, veggies, and grains as well as nuts and oils can also last much longer. NPR added that canned food in particular has been studied and tested for its freshness and edibility qualities. These foods may not taste as strong or provide as potent nutrients, but they are still good to eat. Science has long proven that.

Scientists claim that the foods that make us sick are not those that sat on the shelf too long; rather, the foods that have been recalled are those that were contaminated with some disease or bacteria. So the next time you go to clean out the fridge or the pantry, don’t just use the best buy or expiration dates. Take time to smell, look at, and possibly taste to check out whether the food is still good or not. Use common sense, of course, but don’t worry if it’s a few days past the date. Do a little science of your own to figure out what’s still edible and what’s not.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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