Although most consumers rely on “Best if Used By” and “Use By” notations on date labels to make decisions about food, and believe they know what these phrases mean, new research shows that consumers commonly misunderstand this system. A new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, examined consumer understanding of the U.S. food industry’s labeling system and the relative effectiveness of messages in increasing understanding.
“The majority of people use date labels to make decisions about food,” says Catherine Turvey, MPH, a public health specialist in the department of exercise and nutrition sciences at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and lead author of the study. “Misunderstanding food date labels is a problem because it can lead people to eat food that is no longer safe, or waste food that is still good to eat. Reducing confusion around food date labeling is an important strategy for reducing waste of food.”
Americans throw out about a third of all food purchased, representing more than $161 billion in wasted food each year, she says.
The study polled 2,607 U.S. adults, and 64% correctly explained what the “Best If Used By” label meant, while just 44.8% were able to describe what the “Use By” label meant. It’s easy to understand why these labels are confusing. The “Use By” date indicates when a food item may no longer be safe to consume. According to USDA, you shouldn’t eat, cook or freeze any items if this date has expired. The “Best If Used By” date is when the food will be at its optimum flavor and/or quality. USDA notes that this isn’t a “must purchase by” date, but merely a suggestion of when you should eat it. If a food looks and smells fresh a few days after this date, it’s still safe to consume.
“Educational messages are needed to improve understanding of the food industry’s date labeling system,” Turvey adds. “The messages we tested significantly improved understanding, but even after reading an educational message, misunderstanding was still common. The familiarity of food date labels and consumers’ overconfidence in their own understanding of the labels may be a barrier to reaching consumers with educational messaging about what the labels mean.”
Once the researchers provided a brief explanation on what the two food label terms meant, the level of understanding increased, with 82% of participants describing “Best if Used By” correctly and 82.4% explaining the “Use By” label correctly.
The researchers believe that standardizing labels and reducing the variety of labels on products could help lower confusion. “The food industry took an important step by creating a voluntary standardized system with just two labels,” Turvey says. “As this system becomes more widely adopted, engaging educational messaging is needed to help people realize they may misunderstand date labels and teach them the label meanings.”
FDA has recently championed the conversion to just the “Best If Used By” label in an effort to standardize labeling and help to reduce food waste, but the agency hasn’t yet mandated any specific language.