The ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on the labels of much of the food we buy, should form a very important part of our food shopping decision making process. Once the dates have passed, there is a high chance that most of the food left in our fridges and cupboards will end up in the bin, contributing to the tonnes of food waste which damages our environment. Last month, in a bid to cut down on food waste, the US government announced bills to help produce clearer food labelling which will tackle a large proportion of food waste. It’s unknown if anything similar will take place in the UK, but in the meantime understanding what your food expiration dates really mean can help you make wiser choices at home.


Food waste in the UK

Food waste is a critical issue for the environment, with recent statistics suggesting that food waste is responsible for 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. This impacts on global warming as well as costs households around £60 a month. Most of this waste is completely unnecessary, and reducing it could be the equivalent of taking 1 in 4 cars off the road – a significant change for our pollution levels.


Understanding food labelling

Most of us are taught early on that we shouldn’t eat food that is past its expiration date as it could leave us unwell. However, the first thing to be aware of is that there is a huge difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’. Understanding this difference could help us make wiser choices about what we keep and what we dispose of.


So what is the difference between “use by” and “best before”?

Use by – usually reserved for fresh food such as meat, fish, salads, etc which have a short period of time in which they need to be used. It is not recommended that you eat these products past their ‘used by date’, as these could pose a health risk. However, you can freeze these products to extend their life, but it’s important to defrost them thoroughly before use.

Best before Best before relates to the quality of the item rather than the safety of it, meaning that goods will be at their best before the date outlined, but can continue to be consumed afterwards. The texture or the flavour may start to go (like a cake for example) but that doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown away. Make your own judgement and you’ll probably find that many of the things you’d have usually thrown out are actually still ok to eat.

Sell by/Display until These labels are also used by many retailers but are not a requirement. They are more for internal purposes than for customers – the only labels you need to concern yourself with are the other two mentioned above.


Being wiser with your food choices

There are many ways in which you can make wiser food choices to help eliminate waste. Starting today will not only help the environment, but will help you to save money too. Some helpful tips include:

  • Planning your meals: Rather than just letting yourself loose in the aisles, make a list of what you plan to eat each week. Not only will this stop you buying extra food which may go to waste, but it will also enable you to eat healthier too.
  • Use your freezer: Freezing foods which you know you won’t use before their ‘use by’ date is a great way to avoid waste. Even better, if you can prepare meals and then freeze them, you’ll also save time cooking too on those nights where you’re tempted to have a ready meal or takeaway.
  • Do a food audit: Take a look at your cupboards and fridge – are there foods which you repeatedly throw out? Maybe it’s time that you stop buying them or look for smaller quantities.
  • Buy frozen fruit and vegetables: these days, it is much easier to buy pre-chopped, frozen fruit and vegetables which retain their nutritional value. The fact that you don’t have to peel and chop them will lead to less food waste, and less mess for you to clean up at home too!

For more information about food labelling, the NHS has some great information. Being familiar with the labels on your food and what they mean will help you to make better choices, and help to eliminate the food waste that can be damaging to our environment, and our wallets.