Americans Waste Tons of Perfectly Good Food Because They Don't Understand Expiration Dates

iStock.com/FangXiaNuo
iStock.com/FangXiaNuo

Everyone approaches safe food handling a little differently. Some people rely on the smell test; others are fastidious about washing their hands.

But according to a new survey, consumers waste food—a lot of food—because they don't understand the meaning of the expiration dates on the food labels.

The online survey, led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and published in the journal Waste Management, polled 1029 respondents about their knowledge of food labels that use terms like “best if used by,” “sell by,” or “use by.” Roughly 84 percent said they opted to discard food on or near the so-called expiration dates at least occasionally, while 37 percent said they did it on a regular basis. Just over a third of those polled believed such food labels—often found on packaged dry food as well as bread and canned goods—were federally regulated, which they aren’t.

The survey indicates some confusion over food labeling. Typically, “best by” and “sell by” labels are meant to indicate when a food might begin to experience diminished freshness or quality, not an expiration date by which it could spoil or become a potential source of food-borne illness. By discarding these foods prematurely, researchers say, consumers are contributing to a food waste problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to 31 percent of consumable food is wasted at both the retail and consumer levels.

Shoppers aren’t necessarily to blame. The labels often have no explicit explanation on packaging, leaving phrases like “best if used by” open to interpretation. Even individual states have different standards for items like milk, with some using a “sell by” date (with the milk typically good for five days after) and others sticking to a “use by” date.

Other pantry foods may have expiration dates but could conceivably last for years, like sugar, salt, and honey.

Newer food industry standards may clear up some of this confusion, with “use by” designated strictly for items where safety is a concern and other terms (including "best if used by") meant to denote quality. Taking the "use by" suggestion is especially important with deli meats and cheeses that can grow bacteria like Listeria in refrigerated environments. Until there’s a universally recognized standard, however, consumers are likely to remain uncertain about what these terms mean.

So what’s the best approach to interpreting food labels? For dry or non-perishable goods, dates are often a marker of quality, and you’re not likely to do yourself any harm by keeping the food around longer. Perishable goods should be discarded when their “use by” dates have arrived. But no matter what the package says, if doesn’t smell or look quite right, label it trash and go shopping.

[h/t ScienceDaily]

You Can Now Order—and Donate—Girl Scout Cookies Online

It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
Girl Scouts

Girl Scouts may have temporarily suspended both cookie booths and door-to-door sales to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be deprived of your annual supply of everyone’s favorite boxed baked goods. Instead, you can now order Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and all the other classic cookies online—or donate them to local charities.

When you enter your ZIP code on the “Girl Scouts Cookie Care” page, it’ll take you to a digital order form for the nearest Girl Scouts organization in your area. Then, simply choose your cookies—which cost $5 or $6 per box—and check out with your payment and shipping information. There’s a minimum of four boxes for each order, and shipping fees vary based on quantity.

Below the list of cookies is a “Donate Cookies” option, which doesn’t count toward your own order total and doesn’t cost any extra to ship. You get to choose how many boxes to donate, but the Girl Scouts decide which kinds of cookies to send and where exactly to send them (the charity, organization, or group of people benefiting from your donation is listed on the order form). There’s a pretty wide range of recipients, and some are specific to healthcare workers—especially in regions with particularly large coronavirus outbreaks. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York, for example, are sending donations to NYC Health + Hospitals, while the Girl Scouts of Western Washington have simply listed “COVID-19 Responders” as their recipients.

Taking their cookie business online isn’t the only way the Girl Scouts are adapting to the ‘stay home’ mandates happening across the country. They’ve also launched “Girl Scouts at Home,” a digital platform filled with self-guided activities so Girl Scouts can continue to learn skills and earn badges without venturing farther than their own backyard. Resources are categorized by grade level and include everything from mastering the basics of coding to building a life vest for a Corgi (though the video instructions for that haven’t been posted yet).

“For 108 years, Girl Scouts has been there in times of crisis and turmoil,” Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Sylvia Acevedo said in a press release. “And today we are stepping forward with new initiatives to help girls, their families, and consumers connect, explore, find comfort, and take action.”

You can order cookies here, and explore “Girl Scouts at Home” here.

Can't Find Yeast? Grow Your Own at Home With a Sourdough Starter

Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images
Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images

Baking bread can relieve stress and it requires long stretches of time at home that many of us now have. But shoppers have been panic-buying some surprising items since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to pantry staples like rice and beans, yeast packets are suddenly hard to find in grocery stores. If you got the idea to make homemade bread at the same time as everyone on your Instagram feed, don't let the yeast shortage stop you. As long as you have flour, water, and time, you can grow your own yeast at home.

While many bread recipes call for either instant yeast or dry active yeast, sourdough bread can be made with ingredients you hopefully already have on hand. The key to sourdough's unique, tangy taste lies in its "wild" yeast. Yeast is a single-celled type of fungus that's abundant in nature—it's so abundant, it's floating around your home right now.

To cultivate wild yeast, you need to make a sourdough starter. This can be done by combining one cup of flour (like whole grain, all-purpose, or a mixture of the two) with a half cup of cool water in a bowl made of nonreactive material (such as glass, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic). Cover it with plastic wrap or a clean towel and let it sit in a fairly warm place (70°F to 75°F) for 24 hours.

Your starter must be fed with one cup of flour and a half cup of water every day for five days before it can be used in baking. Sourdough starter is a living thing, so you should notice is start to bubble and grow in size over time (it also makes a great low-maintenance pet if you're looking for company in quarantine). On the fifth day, you can use your starter to make dough for sourdough bread. Here's a recipe from King Arthur Flour that only calls for starter, flour, salt, and water.

If you just want to get the urge to bake out of your system, you can toss your starter once you're done with it. If you plan on making sourdough again, you can use the same starter indefinitely. Starters have been known to live in people's kitchens for decades. But to avoid using up all your flour, you can store yours in the fridge after the first five days and reduce feedings to once a week.

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