Deciphering product code dates: Is longer better?

by Jill Bender on March 28, 2012

code date1

Sell by. Use by. Best by. Expiration.

They are called many things and formatted many ways.

THEY are code dates; dates that are assigned by the manufacturer to give a guideline of how long a product will be good. Maybe they should be called “good until” dates.

Those dates can be very misleading and confusing though because sometimes we think that the longer a code date, the fresher the product, right? I’ve seen people dig through the bread section to find a loaf of bread that has a date of six months! Um, NO.

Choosing a reasonable date would be good. If you have a choice between six months and two weeks, you want two weeks.

In *most* cases a longer date means it has more preservatives. Nothing that’s “good for you” lasts six months.

And the other thing? Sometimes you do want a longer code date… Sometimes a longer date is just fine and that makes shopping at a scratch and dent store a huge money saver!

Manufacturers have guidelines on how long their item is good from the day it is produced to the day you buy it. Depending on the item, it could be 15 days, 25 days, six months, two years and so on.

We don’t really want milk (unless it’s powdered) that will be good for two years, right? Ew!

I highly recommend comparing codes within the same item. Let’s use crackers for example. Crackers generally have a longer shelf life, meaning they are good for quite a while. If you are looking at a box of saltine crackers and you are looking at the exact same brand and two boxes have different code dates, but within a week of each other you will want to pick up the longer code date because they are fresher.

Now let’s look at milk. Milk doesn’t have a very long code date so you do want to pick up milk that is farther out (within reason!) because that does mean it is fresher. There is an exception when you look across different brands. If one brand has milk with dates for  four weeks out and  another has milk for two weeks – CHOOSE THE TWO WEEKS!

A good rule of thumb is that shelf stable items are okay to buy with longer code dates. “Fresh” products should not have a very  long date.

Remember… the longer the date the less fresh the product.

And, oh, by the way, that product up  there in the photo? A dairy product? Dated 2/23/12? Was still in my fridge on 3/26.  Never fear, today is 3/27 and it is no longer.

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