Who in their right mind would eat a 40-year-old can of corn?
In 1974, scientists tested a can of corn that was dated from 1934… 40 years earlier. NPR reported that when they opened the can, “The contents looked and smelled pretty much like ordinary canned corn.” The nutrient level was generally unchanged.
Researchers found similar results for 100-year-old “canned oysters, tomatoes, and red peppers in cans recovered from a sunken steamboat, buried in river silt near Omaha, Nebraska.”
Canned foods often stay good for decades… well past the expiration date stamped on the can.
Every year, Americans throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of food based on their printed “sell by” date.
As much as 40% of the U.S. food supply is ultimately wasted… A recent report from ReFED, a nonprofit aimed at reducing food waste, showed that a better date-labeling system could save nearly 400,000 tons of wasted food.
Today, only baby formula has an expiration date that is regulated by the federal government. The rest of the dates you see on food packaging are either voluntary or based on requirements that vary state-by-state.
The result is a confusing mashup of “best before,” “use by,” or “expires on” stamps that may not mean what you think…
These dates are generally a manufacturer’s best guess for when a food will be at its freshest… Your bottle of ketchup won’t go bad a day after the expiration date. Many food products last far longer past their sell-by dates than you might expect.
But still, a new survey from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found that more than a third of Americans usually or always throw away food that’s past its expiration date. And more than 80% admit doing so occasionally.
But you should use common sense when deciding to throw out food – not arbitrary dates from the manufacturer.
And if you’re in doubt, do what I do… Smell it.
Your sense of smell is far more powerful than you realize. Humans can detect even tiny changes in the way something smells.
Changes in the smell of food is typically caused by bacteria and mold. Easier to smell than some bacteria, mold sends out invisible enzymes into food that can make you sick. So simply scraping off the mold or cutting it off still leaves some of those enzymes behind.
And although some bacteria are normal (for instance, your day-old leftovers might smell differently than they did the night you cooked them), some can make you sick. Knowing the difference in smell can help avoid serious health problems.
We like to use a basic guide, like this one from the U.S. Department of Health, for preliminary judgments and then rely on our smell and how good our fridge is.
Most people can discern between 4,000 and 10,000 different smells. But as you get older, your sense of smell decreases. You can’t prevent it from happening, but you can take steps to minimize the loss by exercising your sniffer.
Take the time to smell the flowers when you’re out walking… And exercise your nose by comparing the aromas of different types of coffee and wine.
One important exception: Because probiotics are alive, they won’t last in your medicine cabinet forever. Unlike probiotics in, say, yogurt, they will run out of food quickly and start to die. So taking them before the expiration date gets you the best benefit.
Speaking of your medicine cabinet… expiration dates on pill bottles are also mostly a marketing ploy.
One of my former colleagues (Amber Mason) walked into my office a few years ago asking about whether she should stock up on over-the-counter items… or if she had to worry about expiration dates.
I told her to stockpile… These expiration dates are mostly a marketing ploy to keep you buying more frequently. Most over-the-counter medications last for years past their expiration dates. There’s an old story about a stash of medications found in a WWII bomb shelter that were perfectly fine 45 years later…
But if you ever receive pills that smell unusual or are crumbling, throw them away and alert your doctor.
What We’re Reading…
- “In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue.”
- Something different: Roadkill thieves in Alaska stealing moose meant for charity.
Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Retirement Millionaire Daily Research Team
November 15, 2016