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Never waste food again: What expiration dates really mean

Have you ever thrown out meat or produce because you didn't have time to eat it before the expiration date past? It's unnecessary waste of food and money.
/ Source: TODAY

Have you ever thrown out meat or produce because you didn't have time to eat it before that dreaded expiration date past? It turns out that's an unnecessary waste of perfectly good food and money.

We've got good news for you: Most expiration dates have nothing to do with whether your food is still safe to eat. Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, health and wellness expert, gave us the real scoop on expiration dates.

The date marked on your fresh produce, meat and frozen foods is based on a voluntary labeling system, which is only used to indicate optimal taste and texture. Your food won't harm you if you choose to eat it after its marked date has passed — it just isn't at the peak freshness.

Surprisingly, the only item that has a hard expiration date is infant formula: If it's stored too long, it may separate and clog the bottle's nipple.

RELATED: Spring clean your fridge: What to keep or toss

The different types of labels all mean different things. You actually won't see the words "expiration date" on your food very often.

Before you clean out your fridge, make sure you know what some of these common and sometimes confusing packaging labels really mean:

  • Pack date: When the food was packaged. This doesn't indicate shelf-life or freshness
  • Sell-by date: The date when grocery stores can no longer have the item on the shelf. Most foods can last a couple days — or even months — after this date, if properly stored.
  • Use-by or best if used by date: This is the best date to eat the food by for optimal taste, flavor and freshness, if properly stored. This is only a recommended best quality date, not the date when your food goes bad.
  • Guaranteed fresh by date: You'll typically see this label on baked goods. This date refers to optimal freshness. Even after this date, it's still safely edible.

RELATED: When should you eat that frozen food... or toss it? Check these guidelines

But, be aware: these labels only apply to unopened food. Once you open up a container or package, the freshness decreases.