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By Salma Abdelnour

Scared to eat "expired" food? You're not alone. Those numbers staring back at us from our food containers seem to suggest that we're putting our lives—or at least our stomachs—in danger if we eat something past its expiration date.

But those dates often don't mean much at all, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Their findings show 90% of Americans throw out food that's in perfectly good shape. Why? Because most of us take those expiration or sell-by dates as gospel—even when there's no health risk involved. We throw out a collective $165 billion worth of food annually; that's roughly 40% of the U.S.'s food supply. How's that for a scary number? 

The study points out how badly regulated the expiration-date system is: It's a mish-mash of chaotic, loosely enforced state guidelines and food companies' own idiosyncratic practices. The report also calls for better federal oversight and suggests specific guidelines so that consumers and retailers can better understand when food actually needs to be discarded for safety's sake—and when it's still absolutely fine to eat (even if it's not at its peak quality).

Let's hope the food industry and the FDA spring into action and put those recommendations into effect asap. Because until then, the average American household of four is wasting loads of money throwing out food that's completely safe and edible.

How much? Close to $500 a year. Ouch.

Salma Abdelnour is the food editor at iVillage. You can follow her on Twitter.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.