If you routinely check the ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date on the label of a packaged food item before consuming it, you’re not alone. Most people have a habit of tossing items—be it oat milk or dough, jams or Italian cheese—out of the freezer or pantry after they cross the ‘best before’ or expiry date.
However, consuming food past the ‘best before’, ‘use by’, ‘sell by’ or ‘freeze by’ date isn’t always bad. Experts say not all grocery products get into the garbage; some have an extended shelf life and can be used for a longer period.
Here’s the difference which we sometimes tend to ride roughshod over—a product with a ‘best before’ date means any pre-packaged food product must have a durable shelf life, which is mentioned on the label, along with proper storage instructions. It suggests a quality assurance date until which the taste and quality of food are at their peak. After this date, the taste and quality may start to deteriorate. For instance, condiments, breads, canned goods or snacks can still be consumed after their ‘best before’ dates if placed under suitable temperature conditions, unless they do not taste stale or lose flavour.
Expired products in case of perishables, for instance, grocery items like bread or bakery items, can show visible signs of molds, or smell in the case of poultry and dairy. Bulging cans are also a sign of spoilage.
In the new labelling and display regulations, as per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), packaged food brands need to mandatorily display ‘use by’ or expiry date instead of ‘best before’ date, present nutritional information on the principal display panel in bigger font sizes and ensure that the name of the food and vegetarian and non-vegetarian classification symbol are on the front side of the pack with effect from January 1, 2022.
According to Dr Jagmeet Madan, national president, Indian Dietetic Association, the ‘best before’ date is used normally for perishable fresh foods like milk, bread and juices, which need to be used within a stipulated period of time. “Usually, expiry dates are not relevant to foods and used more for drugs. But it’s important to have a mention of the date of manufacture and batch on a packaged food,” she says.
So, can food items, whether they are perishable or not, be consumed even after the ‘best before’ dates? “No. There are defined conditions for the storage of perishable foods. They should be kept in the refrigerator with a temperature of 4-6 degrees Celsius. Ideally, all foods should be consumed within the ‘best before’ dates, but in case you have stored them under low temperature conditions, you can go two to three days above the ‘best before’ date,” adds Madan.
After the expiration date has passed, the food products may not carry the same nutrient content as described on the label. Cookies expire after four months from the date of manufacturing, whereas cakes last for three days without the use of refrigeration. However, if refrigerated, cakes easily last up to seven days.
“In some cases, expiry dates are mandatory for formulated liquid diets, beverages like tea and coffee, including herbal teas and packed juices, foods and medicines sold by a pharmacist, bakery products such as cookies, cakes and breads, meal replacements, nutritional supplements and infant formula. If a food item has passed its expiration date, it should be discarded and not consumed at any cost,” says Akshi Khandelwal, founder, Butterfly Ayurveda, an organisation engaged in the research, development, manufacturing and marketing of Ayurvedic products.
Yeast may not be as effective if the expiry date has passed. On the contrary, certain foods such as honey and vinegar do not truly expire since they do not become unstable. “All food items are made of organic or inorganic substances and they change their nature if they react with the atmosphere; thus, they may become unstable. Honey may crystallise with time, but it does not truly expire. Similar is the case with corn, starch, sugar and rice,” says Zainab Cutlerywala, faculty at Pune-based Institute of Nutrition and Fitness Sciences (INFS), which imparts comprehensive and practical knowledge in health and fitness.
Generally, bread has a life of three to four days after which growth of microbes can be seen. Dairy products vary. Eggs have a ‘best before’ date of approximately 15 days and they too can be eaten even after that as they show a change in colour. Pulses get attacked by insects, but once cleaned, they can be cooked (these don’t fall in the packed food item category, though).
What the brands say
At Alt Co, an alternate-dairy brand, products are vetted through internal and external lab tests before the company arrives at an expiry or ‘best before’ date. “Our oat milk is done in aseptic packaging and can be stored in ambient conditions outside the refrigerator until opened. After opening, it should be refrigerated and consumed within five to seven days,” says Sumair Sachdev, COO of Alt Co, whose products are differentiated through investment in research and development to create a product backed by science and flavourful in taste.
Most consumer products like those of Tata Consumer Products are ambient shelf stable and recommended to be stored in a cool, dry place (in the case of tea, pulses, salt, etc). For the liquid range of products, the brand recommends storing under Indian ambient conditions; however, storing under refrigerated conditions usually preserves the quality of most foods for longer periods. Keeping the food in air-tight containers or at the least, in closed containers that prevent exposure to moisture, is also important.
For instance, Bikano uses the ‘first in, first out’ inventory rule—so, products with the earliest expiration dates are sold first. There is select enterprise resource management software to get complete visibility on the inventory, from the time all raw material enters the store to the time the products hit the shelves. “Even at the stores, the ‘first in, first out’ method makes operations simple and reduces product wastage or write-offs,” says Manish Aggarwal, director, Bikano, Bikanervala Foods Pvt Ltd, a food and beverage and snack brand.
Brands like Yu, a homegrown consumer food brand, reimagine packaged food with advanced lyophilisation technology used in Instant Meal Bowls with natural ingredients and no preservatives, additives, artificial flavourings or colours. It uses the advanced bio-chemistry process used in the 2020 NASA SpaceX mission to create nutritious packaged food that retains original taste and aroma and enjoys a refrigeration-free shelf life of 12 months.
“Food is placed in an industrial size blast freezer to convert the moisture present in the food to ice. The frozen product passes through a vacuum chamber that helps in the removal of moisture from the frozen product by means of sublimation process. The chamber maintains a low pressure and temperature that allows the ice present in the product to convert directly into vapour without the use of external heat. The process removes more than 99% of the moisture present in food that allows products to be stored at room temperature for a long period of time,” says Bharat Bhalla, founder and executive director of Yu Food Labs.
Bhalla gives an example of a signature dish, gajar ka halwa, which is prepared in December or January using only the freshest seasonal carrots. “This dish is, however, available all year round, enabling consumers to enjoy their favourite dessert not only during the winter season but anytime during the year,” he adds.
On the other hand, the FMCG sector needs to maintain a rigorous supply chain and provide ample stock of fresh items in order to avoid expiry dates or sometimes food waste. “We cater to products in both 1 litre and 200 ml. This helps in unnecessary wastage. Small size and less quantity help one-time consumption of a product, in our case within two or three days, especially for those trying small packs for the first time,” says Sachdev of Alt Co.
In fact, shelf life of food products helps in travel time between various channels—from the manufacturing plant to the warehouse and distributor or retailer. It also plays an important role in sales planning for the FMCG value chain. “Ignoring shelf-life limitations could lead to unnecessary wastage of products, stock damage and lost sale opportunities. FMCG companies are always trying to minimise their supply chain lead time (the length of the time taken between manufacturing of a product to its placement in stores) so that retailers and consumers can have freshly produced stock available to them for consumption,” says Abhishek Sharma, global projects director, Pladis Global, a leading snacking company and home to brands including McVitie’s and Godiva.
While there’s much conversation on reprocessing meals into innovative and appetising options to put a stop to the monumental problem of food waste, consuming food at certain timelines can be a solution. “As a consumer, one should try to buy foods in limited quantities so that you use it before the best before dates. Decreasing quantities of purchase are a step towards decreasing carbon footprint,” adds Madan of Indian Dietetic Association.
To reduce wastage in the kitchen, perishables need to be classified according to the storage instructions—frozen, refrigerated or at room temperature. Meats, vegetables, and dairy should be kept separate and packed non-perishables in a cool dry place, as sunlight and moisture alter the product. “Once you have opened a tin can, remove the ingredients and get rid of the can. Don’t keep products like pineapples and tomato puree in the can once opened,” says chef Tarun Sibal, co-founder of Titlie, a culinary bar in Goa.
Organisations like Sodexo India work in different environments to adopt measures to curb food waste and reduce the overall carbon footprint. By using the ‘WasteWatch’ programme, Sodexo is able to capture food waste data and take action to drive cultural and behavioural change, whether food waste generated in the kitchen or consumer food waste. “In the food production environment, the data built enables forecasting, right amount of material procurement, menu planning and portion size planning,” says Ashwin Bhosale, director, HSE and corporate responsibility, Sodexo India.
BEFORE & AFTER
- Food items may still be consumed safely after the ‘best before’ date but not after the expiry date
- An expiry date is the point beyond which food is considered unsafe for human consumption and hence cannot be offered for sale
- The ‘best before’ date is the point beyond which the food might have lost the expected characteristics due to aging. It is not a purchase or safety date
- Condiments, breads, canned goods or snacks can still be consumed if placed under suitable temperature conditions, unless they do not taste stale or lose flavour
- Yeast may lose its texture after expiry date. Honey, vinegar, cornstarch, sugar or rice do not truly expire
- Bread generally has a life of three to four days, after which growth of microbes will be seen. Dairy products vary in shelf life