What do food ‘expiration’ dates actually tell us?

USDA urges consumers not to be hasty in throwing out food

You know when you’re going to make a meal or pour a glass of milk and you see the expiration date passed already? Ugh, do I throw it out? Should I pinch my nose and carry on?

It turns out the “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” labels all refer to something different, and chances are you’ve been tossing out foods before you’ve needed to.

For quick reference, here’s what each date means:

Best by: This date indicates when something is at its peak quality or flavor.

Sell by: This date refers to how long a store should display or sell an item.

Use by: This is the last recommended day a product can be eaten at peak quality.

But wait -- none of these dates tell when food is actually expired.

So when should you throw something out? Here’s the rundown on common everyday foods:

The expiration dates on foods are listed simply to help people verify how fresh the food is, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not to indicate when the food is no longer safe to eat.

Yet, 84 percent of people throw out food when it’s close to the “expiration” date, Time reports.

The USDA said even if the date on your product has passed, chances are, it’s still good, so you don't need to be so hasty in throwing out food. In short, all those dates on your food ultimately refer to quality, not safety.

The USDA pointed out that the bacteria that causes food poisoning does not grow in the freezer, so regardless of how long something has been in the freezer, it should be safe to eat for some time (assuming it was put in the freezer during a safe time frame).

[RELATED: Recommended freezer time charts]

When it comes down to it, you should be able to see, smell or taste when a food has gone bad. If you’re still not sure, the USDA has created a comprehensive app called Foodkeeper that shows which foods last how long. Click here to learn more about it.