How seriously do you take the best before and expiry dates on the food products you buy? Every perishable item for sale in our stores includes some kind of date and some people refuse to eat anything past their expiry and best before dates. We know that these dates are a good indication of how fresh the food is, but exactly how necessary is it to abide by these dates?
After a bit of research I discovered a very interesting fact.
These expiry dates and best before dates actually often refer more to a product’s freshness than they do the predicted date that the food will go off.
Therefore, most products can be eaten many days, and in the case of tins, years, after the expiry dates printed on the packaging. In the USA, there is very little federal regulation controlling these dates. Can it be any different in South Africa?
Our food begins to spoil when bacteria growth begins to get the upper hand, so if you wish to preserve a food, the key is to restrict the growth of bacteria. There are several ways to do this. Bacteria need certain conditions in order to thrive. They need moisture, oxygen, warmth, a food source, and room to grow. They’re not too different from humans in that respect! Therefore, if you restrict bacteria’s access to any one of these three items, you can restrict the growth of bacteria and thereby preserve your food. We do this in several ways:
Drying food is a good way to remove the moisture from food, thereby limiting bacterial growth. Examples of this would be rice, pasta, dried packets of beans and peas, biscuits, and dried fruit.
Tins are so effective at keeping oxygen out that it is no wonder that canned food stays preserved for years. As long as the tin is not compromised, the food inside will remain edible for a very long time. The taste and freshness of the product will deteriorate with time, but will still remain edible. If a tin has become compromised, it is usually easy to tell as the tin will bloat with the gasses produced by the growing colonies of bacteria.
We all know that the refrigerator slows the growth rate of bacteria and it is because of the fridge that we can keep our milk for longer than two days. The freezer is also a great invention as frozen foods kept in a good freezer can last almost indefinitely.
Like bacterial, we require a non-compromised food source. We often add a poison, in the way of preservatives, to our food, in order to inhibit the bacterial growth. In earlier times, huge amounts of sugar or salt (also a drying agent) would be added to food to preserve it. Just as you could not eat a huge amount of jam straight out the jar, these high amounts of sugar discourage many strains (but not all) of bacteria from growing. Store your jam in an airtight jar or a can, and you should be able to keep it edible for months.
Preservatives, such as sodium benzoate found in fruit juice, kill bacteria growing in and on food, but when we eat food treated with these preservatives, we run the risk of hurting our natural gut microflora, especially if we eat a lot of such food.
Room to Grow:
Another way to save our food from organisms that would make us sick, is to purposely infect it with a culture that will not make us sick. From here we get such cultured foods as yoghurt, soured creams, blue cheeses, kimchi and other natural pickles. In fact, studies seem to show that these cultures can actually benefit our health. These cultures reduce the risk of less desirable cultures from growing as they are crowded out by the more beneficial bacteria.
Once we know how food is preserved and that best before dates are more an indication of freshness than edibility, we can be more discerning about when we throw out food. Of course, we do have to be careful because rotten food can make us extremely sick and in the case of those with compromised immune systems, can result in death.
I have never taken as much note of best before dates on food as many people I know, and rather rely on my senses to make my own decisions in regards to the edibility of food. Of course, when it comes to buying highly perishable food such as milk, I do always check the best before date as I find these fairly accurate, but for tinned foods, biscuits, pasta, dried beans, rice, etc, etc, I am much less concerned.
Checking a Food’s Edibility
If a food item has been in my fridge or on my shelf for some time, I always check it’s quality before eating it as this is a standard health practice. Do you want to know how I check if food is safe to eat? I’ll be writing another blog article on that soon.