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How Bad is it to Eat Expired Food if it Still Smells Okay?

That expiration date isn't the boss of you.

by Kristen Dold
Mar 8 2017, 5:04pm

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.

The scenario: The BLT of your pal's dreams is nearly ready: Bread's been toasted, bacon's crackling on the pan, and a tomato and lettuce sit on the counter looking fresh to death. He reaches into the fridge to grab some mayo—the lifeblood of this lunch—but locks eyes with the devil: an expiration date that passed four months ago. A twist of the lid reveals nothing out of the ordinary—no funky colors or smells. Does he risk death and spread it on, or choke down a Sahara-dry sammie? 

The facts: The expiration date (which you see as "best by" "sell by" or "use before" on the label) isn't related to food safety—it's just an indication of how fresh the food is, says Ben Chapman, associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. After that date, the textures, colors, and flavors of the food might change, but that doesn't mean the food's unsafe to eat. (The only food in the US that has a mandated "expiration" date is infant formula, and that's because the nutrients could degrade over time and we don't want to starve our sweet babies.) 

The worst that could happen: If the food is moldy (and you don't spot those tiny green and white spores before digging in) it's possible that the microscopic fungi could trigger an upset stomach, allergic reaction, or respiratory problem. And while it's rare, a few types of mold may release toxins called mycotoxins, which have been linked to cancer. (So yeah, don't eat mold—your friend can cut around it in hard cheese but bread and berries are more porous and therefore harder to excise it from, says Chapman.) Those scary foodborne pathogens we hear about like E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, which you can't smell or taste, have to do with food handling and not your expiration date—we get sick when meat or contaminated produce is left out on the counter or in a fridge that's above 40 degrees for hours on end and bad bacteria grows, or there's cross contamination between uncooked meat juices and ready-to-eat foods.  

What will probably happen: Nada, dig in. You can really push the shelf life on dry foods where water has been removed (like pasta, cereal, crackers, cookies, or dried fruit and nuts), highly acidic foods (store-bought condiments like mustard, ketchup, relish, and that mayo), and stuff that's frozen or comes in a can or jar. Sour milk and brown bananas can even elevate your baking game. 

What to tell your friend: Eating 'expired' food that looks fine isn't just acceptable, it's practically heroic. According to the USDA, up to 40 percent of food in the US goes to waste, which translates to around 133 billion pounds or $161 billion worth of food. It's the biggest thing clogging our landfills and creates a crap ton of methane, a greenhouse gas. If the thought of weeks- or months-old mayo still makes your friend gag, tell him he can hunt down more specifics using the USDA's Foodkeeper app or website