Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Myth: Products are not safe to eat after their “sell by” date.

Answer: It depends…

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic recently released a study that says that each year Americans throw out as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply, worth an estimated $165 billion, much of it as a result of confusion about the dates found on the product. Unfortunately, it is true that how products are dated in the US can be very confusing and can lead to unnecessary food waste. This also makes it very difficult for small-scale food producers and processors to know how to date their products.

On the other hand, food safety people such as myself often tell consumers when considering a questionable food product, “If in doubt, throw it out.” How do we balance these two sides – reducing food waste, but also ensuring food safety? Hopefully, providing these key facts will help consumers protect themselves from potential food safety risks, but also not waste food unnecessarily.

milk jug with "Best Before" date
  1. The only food product on which expiration dates are federally regulated is infant formula. Therefore, you should NOT buy or use baby formula after its “use-by” date, for both safety and nutritional reasons.

  2. Some states do require dating of some foods, but other than infant formula, there is no regulated dating system across the US. However, USDA does provide the following definitions for various terms used on food product labels:
    • “Sell by” date: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before that date.
    • “Best if used by (or before)” date: Recommended for best flavor or quality. It is NOT a purchase or safety date.
    • “Use by” date: The last date recommended by the manufacturer for the use of the product while at peak quality.
  3. *Note that these dates generally refer to food quality, rather than safety. However, they can give a general idea of how long the food has been in the market.

  4. The most important thing consumers can do to impact the length of time they can safely keep and use food is to handle it properly. This includes the following:
    • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it (at 40°F or below) within at least 2 hours. Freeze it if you can't use it within USDA recommended refrigerated storage times.
      • Note that once a perishable product is frozen, microbial growth stops, so it will be as safe as it was when it went into the freezer.
    • Store foods at the proper temperature and length of time. Do not leave perishable foods at room temperature for more than 2 hours. For example, if you know that a carton of milk has been sitting on the counter for more than 3 hours, throw it out.
    • Follow the handling and preparation instructions on the product label.
    • Avoid cross-contamination and ensure proper sanitation.
    • If the product does have visible mold, off odors, the can is bulging or other similar signs, this spoilage could be a sign that dangerous microorganisms may also be present, so with such products, use the “If in doubt, throw it out” rule.

Read more on this topic at

Contributor: Londa Nwadike, PhD, Extension Food Safety Specialist,, 816-655-6258

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Myth: Drinking water is the only way to stay hydrated.

Answer: BUSTED!

Water infused with fruit
Most of us have grown up hearing these messages: “Keep hydrated!” and “Drink eight glasses of water a day!” Recent data indicates a strong growth in sales of drinks at convenience stores. Many people are opting for sugary drinks like soda, fruit drinks or sports drinks as a means to stay hydrated. In fact, we actually get enough fluid from the foods we normally eat, especially when we eat more foods like fruits and vegetables, which are mostly water.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with drinking more water if you enjoy it, but do we need eight glasses of water each day? No. There’s no scientific basis for the “eight glasses” myth.

In order to stay hydrated, try eating more fruits and vegetables or stick with beverages that are good for you. Instead of reaching for the high calorie, high sugar drinks, try one of these healthy, flavorful options:
  • Infuse your water with fruit. Add chunks of strawberries, watermelon, slices of lemon or oranges and place in the refrigerator overnight. To make the flavors disperse throughout the water better, place fruits at the bottom of a pitcher and mash with a wooden spoon (this is called muddling), then add water. Try different combinations of fruit add-ins to water. You can also get a fruit-infusion pitcher, which allows you to keep the fruit separate from the water but allows the flavor to be released into the water. You can also add frozen fruits to your water.
  • Use tea as a base for the flavor in your water. There are many flavors of tea available. Green teas add a nice mild flavor to water. It also has antioxidants which may ward off chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. Fruit tea when combined with fresh or frozen fruits, give your water that zip that you may be looking for.
  • Sparkling water may be what makes your water drinking experience fun. You can add fruit chunks (fresh or frozen) to the bubbly too.
  • Pump up your ice cubes! Freeze fruit juice in ice cubes. Add to water to give your water a little splash of flavor.

For more information about water myths go to

Contributor: Ellen Schuster, M.S., R.D., Associate State Specialist, University of Missouri Extension,, 573-882-1933   

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Myth: School snacks aren’t a good choice for my child.

Student getting a soda from a vending machineAnswer: Well maybe …

Many schools have started changing the snacks they make available to students to include healthier choices. New proposed federal rules are now available for comment. Any school that receives federal funding for school meals will have to follow these rules when they go into effect.

The proposed new rules apply to competitive foods or foods that “compete” with school meals and are sold before, during, and up to 30 minutes after the school day ends such as vending, school stores and bars and cafeteria a la carte. What foods don’t have to follow these proposed rules? Food brought from home such as lunches and food for parties. Also, foods sold during non-school hours, weekends, off-campus – concession foods, food sold at sporting events and at school plays, after-school bake sales and fundraisers.

In general, snacks will include more nutritious offerings such as fruit, vegetable, protein, dairy or whole grains, and there will be limits to the amount of calories and sodium, fat and sugar they can contain. What about drinks? Caffeinated beverages will be allowed for high school students. For elementary and middle school students, only drinks with small amounts of naturally occurring caffeine will be allowed. We know that portion sizes are a concern especially because they add extra unnecessary calories and in some cases, sugar to students’ diets. Portion sizes for drinks will be as follows: for elementary students, up to 8 ounces; for middle and high schoolers, up to 12 ounces. Different portion sizes are allowed for calorie-free or lower-calorie drinks. You can find a good question-and-answer about these proposed changes at If you want to make comments about these rules you can find more information at Comments about these proposed standards are due by October 28, 2013.

The rules, if approved, will begin July 2014 with the start of the 2014-2015 school year.

Contributor: Ellen Schuster, M.S., R.D., Associate State Specialist, University of Missouri Extension,, 573-882-1933  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Myth: Food allergies are all in your head

Peanut ButterAnswer: BUSTED!

It seems that we are hearing more about food allergies and avoidances these days, from schools banning peanut products to people experimenting with a gluten-free diet. With this increased awareness and exposure, some people may wonder if it’s just part of a trend. Unfortunately, food allergies are real and can cause very serious symptoms, and can even result in death.

A food allergy results when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein (allergen). Eight food items cause 90 percent of all reactions. Those items include milk, soybeans, peanuts, shellfish, fish, tree nuts, eggs, and wheat. Roughly 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies (including 1 in 13 children). When a person eats something he or she is allergic to, the immune system works to get rid of that protein (allergen) by producing destructive chemicals. Those chemicals can cause reddish, swollen or itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, a runny nose, and other similar irritating symptoms. However, those chemicals could also cause trouble swallowing, a drop in blood pressure, or even death from anaphylaxis, such as with 13-year-old Natalie Giorgi .

Part of the confusion about food allergies is that some people may have a food intolerance, which can cause some of the same symptoms as a true food allergy. Other than celiac disease (an adverse reaction to gluten, which is found in wheat), food intolerances do not involve the immune system, but generally affect the digestive system.

September is National Food Safety Education Month, and in 2013, the spotlight for the month is on increasing food allergen awareness. Whether you make food to sell or share with others, work in a restaurant, or are preparing food for you and/or your family, it is increasingly important for all the links in the chain of food from producer to consumer to “avoid a reaction by taking action.” Consumers with food allergies must read food labels carefully to avoid problematic ingredients and also avoid cross-contact of foods containing allergens with those that do not contain allergens. When dining out, ask the restaurant or food service location about the content of the foods, as well as their allergen handling methods.

Read more on food allergens and intolerances at and on gluten-free foods at:

Londa Nwadike, PhD, Extension Food Safety Specialist,, 816-655-6258