Three years ago, Scott Nash, the founder and CEO of Mom's Organic Market, a grocery store chain, found a six-month-old yogurt in his fridge. He peeled off the lid, and to his surprise found that the yogurt smelled fine and it wasn't moldy. He ate it and waited. He felt fine.
From there, he undertook an experiment. Nash, who calls himself a "staunch environmentalist," spent the next year eating past-date food and blogging about it. He has made it his mission to show that expiration dates often don't actually indicate that food has spoiled. By making consumers think otherwise, he argues, those dates contribute to America's food waste problem. Americans throw away a staggering $218 billion worth of food a year, which averages out to a cost of $1,800 for a family of four.
"As someone who has spent 30-plus years in the grocery business, I believe the main culprit, and the easiest way to make the most progress [in reducing food waste], is to overhaul our food product dating system and guidelines," Nash wrote on his blog.
There is no federal regulation that says manufacturers have to include expiration dates on the packaging, except for infant formula. Manufacturers mostly use their discretion to pick the "best by," "sell by," and "use by" dates printed on their products, so the chosen date can be a reflection of when the food company recommends using the product for peak quality rather than an indication of how safe it is to eat the labeled food.
Nash shares with Grow the tricks he learned during his experiment that, he says, can help you avoid "throwing money in the garbage." The CEO also shares a quiche recipe that he says serves as "a great vehicle for getting rid of stuff."
Certain foods can last years beyond their expiration dates, primarily items like grains and dried foods. "Canned goods and jarred goods last for decades. They're airtight and preserved," says Nash. If a can appears warped or bloated, though, toss it.
Grains like crackers or cereal might be edible past the expiration date, but they do eventually become rancid. "You'll smell it if grains go bad ... but you can also touch them to see if they're stale," Nash says.
The point is that you can usually use your senses to determine if something's no longer fit to eat. "If it smells bad, throw it away. If it looks moldy, throw it away," says Nash. "It's that simple."
Meat, dairy, and eggs have a shorter shelf life. If you're in doubt about these, he says, there are a few techniques you can use to test for freshness.
"You can pour half-and-half into hot water and see if it curdles" before pouring it into your coffee and ruining your whole cup, he says. If an egg floats in a bowl of water, it's gone bad.
Mold can make certain foods dangerous to consumers. Other foods are fine, though, after mold is removed. Hard cheese with mold, for example, can still be edible if you remove the mold because it doesn't penetrate the whole product. To use the cheese, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cutting off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot.
Firm fruits and vegetables like cabbage, bell peppers, and carrots are also safe to use after getting rid of the moldy spot with the same technique.
If you want to play it even safer, Nash says, cook the product after removing the mold: "Make a grilled cheese. Cook with that cheese instead of eating it with crackers." And the same goes for butter, he says: "If it's expired, cook with it to kill the bacteria."
Uncooked beef with a foul odor, slimy texture, or sticky or tacky feel, is best thrown out, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But if refrigerated meat looks and smells slightly funky, it's not necessarily unsafe.
If you have ground beef that you want to salvage, try cooking it and adding tomato sauce: "The acid in the tomatoes helps preserve the meat for an extra two weeks in the refrigerator," says Nash.
Nash suggests freezing meat that's past the expiration date. Keep in mind that the government has stricter guidelines, though. Here's how the Food and Drug Administration recommends you freeze foods and how long they can last.
Though these and other techniques worked for Nash, who didn't suffer ill effects from his experiment, make sure to do your own research to determine what you're comfortable with, and to always use your own good judgment.
If you're wavering about whether to keep certain foods around, remember that you can make most foods last by freezing them while fresh. Frozen foods generally won't go bad because bacteria and other pathogens can't grow at those temperatures.
Nash also points out that while he took his food waste reduction strategy to extreme, "the other extreme is constantly throwing away perfectly fine stuff because of that arbitrary, stupid date."
And food waste is taking a toll on the planet: It's an often overlooked driver of climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 30% of food is wasted globally, contributing 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would come in third after the United States and China in terms of the impact on global warming.
In other words, your choice is not all or nothing, says Nash: "If you at least stop throwing away canned or jarred goods, that would go a long way."
More from Grow: