What is your advice about plant food quality and safety past the expiry dates? My understanding is that generally, expiration dates for most plant foods, whether refrigerated or not, are much more about food quality than food safety, as most plant foods do not have the handling risks that come with animal foods. When it comes to using or purchasing plant foods that are at or near expiry, I tend to use personal judgement rather than simply always opt for a fresher choice, especially when it is a matter of deciding whether to discard the food or not, or when there are cost savings with purchasing the food.
Generally, I am more conservative when it comes to refrigerated foods like tofu and tempeh, and usually don’t risk these products past expiry. Same goes for foods with any significant moisture content. But when it comes to dried foods, especially those that are sealed well with no exposure to light, I tend to be much more flexible regarding expiration dates. Dried powders in particular I think are safe and probably retain optimal quality well past the written date of expiration, provided they are stored well.
In the end, I definitely wouldn’t want to risk noticeable food quality degradation by choosing foods past their expiry, but I think it’s also certainly true that expiration date significance varies considerably depending on the specific food item and storage conditions.
Your observations are very accurate and correct on all fronts. Food expiry dates create tremendous food waste in our society, and are used today more so to move product sales than help prevent food-borne illness. Most people who get sick from food do so due to faulty food preparation and contamination issues, not expiry dates. Nonetheless, animal foods pose a high risk past expiry and plant foods pose a low to no risk past expiry (depending on the specific food). Some expiry dates only provide an estimate of a food’s safety, but many are simply good for a quick turnaround in business. Stores are obligated to remove and throw away anything past expiry dates, even though most foods are completely safe past their expiry dates. Then, as you pointed out, it comes down more to a matter of food quality and nutrient integrity.
There is an entire movement to educate about this very important topic, created by the makers of the documentary Expired? Food Waste in America. Here is the trailer for the official film that provides a quick overview of the immensity of this problem:
I have also had some personal experience with this, which I will share here as well.
During a routine grocery store trip, I noticed a store worker removing the tempeh that had a 50% off “for quick sale” sticker. I said that I will take that and was told that they actually cannot allow me to buy it because it is now past the expiry date. Another time, at a different grocery store, I noticed a store worker removing various foods from the produce section into a cart. Among other things in the cart were tubs of organic mushrooms that looked literally perfect (not even browned or bruised!), and tubs of organic blueberries with the odd moldy one. I asked if they would be on the reduced produce rack and was told no, that they have to throw these out completely due to expiry dates. I was shocked and dismayed to say the least. So I asked if I could have them, instead of them being put in the dumpster, and after checking with the produce manager I was told “yes”. I came home with over $60 of perfectly good organic produce. These are two isolated personal examples, but let’s consider now that this happens on a daily basis, across all stores, in the entire world. It is truly appalling how our food system functions and the level of waste that is allowed to be generated.
And so to help with regards to this topic, here are a few tips for general plant foods when it comes to expiry dates:
- For fresh fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms, pay attention to how they look and smell, as they are usually very clear about letting us know when they are no longer good. While a small spot of mold or decay can be cut out, avoid fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms that are moldy, slimy, have an odor like fish, or in an obvious state of decay or fermentation. Note, fruits are best consumed when fully ripe, and over-ripened fruits can be a very good thing, especially bananas with brown spots or jelly-like persimmons. Slightly wilted or discolored fruits, vegetables, or mushrooms should be perfectly safe to eat, aside from them having lost some of their nutritional value, which should not be a reason for creating food waste. Slightly wilted leafy greens, herbs, and celery can be revitalized by putting them in some water for a few hours. Always wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating.
- For frozen fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms, pay attention to how they look, making sure they are not overly destroyed by frost, dried out, or shriveled. They are likely to still be safe to eat, but will have lost a lot, if not most, of their nutritional value. Normally, frozen fruits and vegetables can last for months, or longer, and should not pose any risks as long as they have not been thawed and re-frozen multiple times.
- For dried fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms, the greatest risk factor is mold growth. As long as there is no observable growth (white, grey, black or other color) on the outside or inside of the food, they should be safe to eat. The flavor will offer further clues.
- For dried beans and grains, pay attention to their firmness. Dry beans and grains should be very hard, not soft or stale, and not exhibit any mold or fungal growth. Most of these can last years, regardless of expiry date, depending on how well they are stored. Keep them sealed, in a cool, dry place, and out of direct light.
- For raw nuts and seeds, pay attention to the flavor and texture. Aside from legitimate bitter (European) almonds, nuts and seeds should not be bitter in flavor, off-tasting, or have any taste of fungus, which is a likely indication of them going rancid or having mold growth, at which point they should be avoided. They should also be firm and not soft or stale.
- For dried powdered plant foods, there should be no concerns, as long as they have been kept well sealed and out of direct light. While they will lose potency over time, especially if they are exposed to oxygen and/or light, they should be fine to consume well past expiry. Avoid any products that taste bitter, which naturally shouldn’t.
- For canned plant foods, whether these are commercially canned or home canned, pay attention first to the integrity of the can. Cans that appear bloated, and improperly canned homemade foods, are the most dangerous, as they can indicate the presence of botulism-causing bacteria, and should be strictly avoided. Otherwise, properly canned plant foods have a very long shelf-life and should not be a concern, even past expiry for some time.
- For tofu and tempeh, pay attention to their smell and flavor, which will usually give them away if they’ve gone bad. Otherwise, they should be perfectly fine for a few days after expiry.
- For dried cracker and cereal goods, there should be no concerns, unless they get exposed to moisture and go stale or moldy. As long as they are kept sealed and dry, they will last very long (indefinitely), regardless of expiry.
- For oils, pay attention to the flavor. Unsaturated oils, especially those that are full of polyunsaturated fats and pure (unrefined), are at risk of going rancid. This will give them an unpleasant bitter flavor and is very unhealthy to consume. However, given that a true whole food, plant-based diet is oil-free, this food group will not be a consideration for those who eat this way.
In the end, whatever the food may be, the most important thing to do is always to pay attention to the food’s overall look, taste, and smell. Avoid anything that is oddly sour or bitter or moldy, or has an odor of fish. Always use common sense and take personal responsibility for your food choices, regardless of what any expiry date says.