When you find uncooked food lurking in your fridge, you might throw it out if the date on the package has passed. But perhaps you shouldn’t.

“There’s been a lot of confusion about how to interpret these labels. Like, we call them expiration dates, but they’re actually not necessarily expiration dates,” says Anjali Narang, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University.

She says the date does not always indicate food safety. Sometimes it indicates when a product’s quality is best. But knowing what’s meant is often confusing because the wording on food labels varies.

“There’s ‘use by,’ ‘best if used by,’ ‘best before,’ ‘sell by,’ ‘fresh by.’ I’ve even seen just the date,” she says.

Narang was part of a team that studied how the wording on these labels affects food waste, which is bad for the climate and consumers’ wallets. She found that people were more likely to trash food if the label only had a date on it, or if the label included the word ‘use’ in any form — for example, ‘best if used by’ or simply ‘use by.’

“So our theory is that people are interpreting these dates as expiration dates,” Narang says.

But that may not be what’s meant. So the study indicates that standardizing food labels could help reduce food waste, but the wording chosen must be clear to consumers.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media