This is an experiment from a few months ago — sorry about my tardiness in posting it! Something to think about as we waste far too much food during the holiday season!
All your life you’re told there are rules you must live by. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t wear white after Labor Day. Don’t take a knife to a gunfight. As time goes on, you learn that many of these rules are, at best, guidelines, and, at worst, bad advice. Nowhere are the expectations of the world so seemingly definitive and yet so misleading than when it comes to food expiration dates.
For years, I took the dates stamped on my groceries seriously. Rice from six months ago? Right in the trash. A can of beans from 2014? Not so fast there, buddy. Even after I came to understand that these were often ‘best by’ dates, or ‘sell by’ dates, I still behaved cautiously. Maybe I’d cheat it a few days, a week. A month, maybe, for a less volatile food product – or an especially delicious one. And yet this still meant I was tossing perfectly good food on a regular basis.
The Obama administration recently announced their goal of cutting U.S. food waste in half, an amount estimated at 133 billion pounds of food each year. One component of this effort is educating the public about the true meaning of dates on food packaging. Chef Dan Barber is championing the cause, even offering a recipe for milk that’s gone sour.
In the spirit of this edict, I vowed to eat something seriously expired every single day for a week, pushing my previous limits. I consulted EatByDate.com for advice. Join me as I eat the most dangerous food my pantry and refrigerator have to offer.
The food: eggs.
The date: September 5, 2015
EatByDate.com says: good for 3-4 weeks after the sell by date
During the month I spent volunteering at an endangered turtle camp in Mexico without access to refrigeration, the other volunteers and I regularly consumed eggs that had been exposed to the 90-degree heat for days on end. No one worried about it. (We were also surrounded by scorpions and our bathroom cleaner proudly announced that it killed cholera, so, in fairness, the egg situation wasn’t anyone’s biggest concern.) Since then, even though I’ve learned that the U.S. requirement that our eggs be power washed means they are stripped of their protective coating and more in need of refrigeration, that experience has made me a bit more cavalier about the danger posed by old or poorly stored eggs. Still, bad eggs pose a serious health risk, and that’s not something to be cavalier about.
Following EatbyDate.com’s advice, I cracked open my eggs, inspecting the whites. Were they still white and cloudy? Check. Any pinkish hue? Nope. I smelled them. Nothing weird there.
I made an omelet with avocado, onions, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms for my boyfriend and I. Delicious.
The date: June 28, 2014
EatbyDate.com says: good for one year after the printed date
I know what you’re thinking: Baking is a science! It’s too risky! What if my cookies don’t turn out, and an hour from now I have sub-par cookies. The horror! I have been through this exact mental process many times, leading to who knows how much prematurely rejected baking powder. Not this time.
Luckily, there is a test to see if baking powder still works. I added a teaspoon of baking powder to half a cup of hot water to make sure it bubbled. It did. Voila, pizzelles!
The food: yeast
The date: November 22, 2012
EatbyDate.com says: good four months past the printed date, if refrigerated
I did a visual check, as recommended. It wasn’t clumpy or dark brown, which would signal spoilage, but an attractive tan, as if it had recently returned from spring break in Cabo. Helpfully, there was another test. I poured half a cup of warm water in a measuring cup. (Not hot, warm – hot water will kill yeast, and this yeast had been through enough already). Then I added a teaspoon of sugar, along with 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast. If it foamed up to the one-cup mark after a minute, it was usable. It did, and it kept going!
I brought in a loaf of bread to my co-workers in the morning with a disclaimer about the yeast’s age. Several of them thought I was pointing this out as a selling point, as if my yeast was like a vintage wine. By noon, the loaf was gone.
Day Three: Tuesday, September 22, 2015.
The food: sesame oil
The date: sometime in 2012 (date partly worn off)
Once again, I was well past even that recommendation. I conducted a smell and taste test. Meh. Seemed fine to me.
My boyfriend made us peanut noodles with it, which were super tasty, though we both agreed it would be better with slightly less peanut butter. Meanwhile, I prepared cookie dough for the next day.
The food: cloves
The date: December 30, 2006
EatbyDate.com says: good 3-5 years past their expiration date.
The shelf life of spices varies considerably, and they last much longer when stored in a cool, dry environment. That’s why people in the know never mount their spice rack over their stove. The best way to test their effectiveness is to smell them. Despite being nine years old, my cloves smelled plenty clovey to me, so I proceeded to use them with my favorite almond refrigerator cookies recipe, a prize winner at the 1976 Texas State Fair.
I brought three-dozen cookies into work the next day with another advisory about the age of the spices. (My nutmeg was from 2009). Minutes later, my co-worker, Josh, appeared with bagels and lox for everyone, stealing my thunder. The break room flooded with breakfasters. Cream cheese was everywhere. I fretted about my overshadowed cookies.
Not to worry. By 1:00, there were only two left. The next time I checked, the Tupperware container was empty, only the warning note remaining.
The food: hot chocolate
The date: I couldn’t find one, but I am certain I’ve had it for at least eight years, and possibly longer.
EatbyDate.com says: good 4-6 months past printed date
This was no nasty old Swiss Miss. This was some seriously posh hot chocolate given to me as a gift, more akin to a regular chocolate bar. It had moved with me to at least three apartments, and the last time I’d used it, several years before, it already seemed pretty dicey. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. As per EatbyDate.com’s instructions, I inspected it. Was it getting white around the edges, maybe a little waxy? Yes and yes. Still, since that was related to flavor and not safety, I forged ahead.
I cooked it with some 7-grain milk over the stove, which I’d opened on September 3rd, so that was also weeks past its recommended usage date. In all honesty, it was not especially tasty, though it wasn’t awful. I drank about half and then dumped the rest.
The food: mayonnaise
The date: May 20, 2014 (or 2015? not sure)
EatbyDate.com says: good for one week past printed date
EatbyDate.com was very stern about old mayo, and I don’t blame them. It smelled off, and was yellow, instead of creamy white — another warning sign. My tuna fish sandwich plan thwarted, I tossed the mayo in the trash.
I also ditched my extremely vintage ketchup because it smelled questionable. I noted that Heinz ketchup lasts longer than other ketchups, according to EatbyDate.com. Interpret that as you will.
The food: maple syrup
The date: October 24, 2010
EatbyDate.com says: good indefinitely
Despite the fact that EatbyDate.com exists only to discourage food waste, it can still be a little tentative about some things, partly out of legitimate health concerns and partly out of, I’m sure, fear of lawsuits. Despite that, they are pretty freewheeling about how long you can use maple syrup: forever. If it starts to crystalize, you can simply re-heat it to restore its original consistency. I was super happy to hear this, as I go through maple syrup at a glacial pace.
What did I learn from eating expired food for a week? Your eyes and nose, along with a few simple chemical tests, are the best way to tell if food’s edible or not, not some arbitrary date stamped on the package. So, eat up, America!