How safe is it to eat expired food? (3 risks)
In this article, we will discuss how safe is it to eat expired food, what are the risks of eating expired food, how to reduce the risks of consuming expired food and how to prevent food from expiring.
Expired food is often discarded although safe to eat, causing enormous and unnecessary food waste. Identifying when an expired food is still safe to eat and when it represents a health risk is an important but difficult task.
How safe is it to eat expired food?
The risk of eating expired food depends mainly on the type of food, its handling and storage history and its overall physicochemical aspect, which indicates possible spoilage.
The expiration date indicates the food quality and not its safety. Besides, expired foods can be more or less prone to cause foodborne disease and different categories of food have different risks associated with them (1, 9).
Eating expired food is always a risk, however, eating spoiled food can cause foodborne illnesses even before its expiration date (9).
When is it safe to eat expired food?
Eating expired food is considered generally safe when no signs of spoilage are present in the food and has been kept unopened and stored according to the recommended storage instructions of the food manufacturer (1, 2).
However, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends to never use infant formula after the expiration date (2).
When is it not safe to eat expired food?
It is not safe to eat expired food when signs of spoilage are present. Some possible indications of spoilage in different food items are (3):
- Unpleasant odour: rancid, sour, fermented, acetone-like, ammoniacal, oxidised, musty, earthy
- Unpleasant flavour: unusually bitter, unusually sour, rancid, putrid, soapy, cardboard-like, metallic
- Formation of a biofilm or slime on the surface of the food
- Phase separation: leakage of juices
- Gas production: swelling of the packaging
- Growth of yeast or fungus: discolouration, development of mycelia or spores
- Signs of insect infestation: damage to the packaging or grains, visible insect parts
- Agglomeration or clumping of powdered foods
- Changes in the texture and colour
What do the Governmental Health Agencies say?
Governmental Health Agencies have different opinions on the consumption of expired foods. Some recommendations are the following:
United States Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS)
Except for infant formula, all food products should be safe after the expiration date if kept unopened and correctly stored, independent of the type of labelling, unless there are signs of spoilage (2).
UK Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
Food labelled with “best-by” in the UK or “use-by” in the EU is not safe past the date and should be discarded. Best-by indicates safety.
Food labelled with “best-before” can be consumed past the date, if it has been correctly stored. Best-before indicates quality (4, 5).
What are the risks of eating expired food?
The risks of eating expired food are summarised in the table below (3, 6, 7, 10):
|Consuming food containing a great number of pathogenic microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites can cause foodborne infection and the microorganisms invade the gastrointestinal tract or other organs of the host||Possible symptoms are diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, fever, stomach pain, headache and dehydration. Symptoms may vary according to the degree of infection and microorganism type, as well as the immunological condition of the individual|
|Consuming food containing toxins produced by microorganisms, such as bacterial or fungal toxins, can cause intoxication in the short term and diseases in the long term||Possible symptoms are vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, bradycardia, reduction of blood pressure and tingling. In the long term, ingestion of fungal toxins may cause damage to the kidney and liver and cancer|
|The ingestion of oxidised lipids in expired foods can induce oxidative stress in the body. Oxidation of lipids occurs with time as a result of chemical reactions, generating oxidised compounds that are toxic to mammals||Oxidised compounds, such as peroxides and aldehydes, are mutagenic and cytotoxic and interfere with cell pathways, leading to cell death. The long-term ingestion of oxidised lipids may lead to inflammatory diseases, neurogenerative diseases and cancer|
How to reduce the risks of eating expired food?
To reduce the risks of eating expired food, you can (3, 9, 10):
- Heat or cook the food to 150°C (300 °F): a high temperature can partially destroy mycotoxins in the food
- Boil food in water and discard the water: possible toxins present in pasta and cereal can be leached by boiling in water
- Reheat food leftovers to a temperature of 165 °f (74 °C)
- Cook perishable products, such as meats, eggs, dairy, fresh fruits and produce. Heat can partially destroy microorganisms present in the food
- Include ingredients rich in antioxidants in your meals to counteract the oxidative effects of possible oxidised lipids in the food. Onions, garlic, citrus fruits, coloured fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and protect against oxidative stress
How to prevent food from expiring?
To prevent food from expiring, some tips are useful (1, 8):
- Do not buy food in a quantity that exceeds your needs
- Do not buy food of low quality or close to the expiration date
- Examine the expiry dating label and the overall conditions of the food packaging and the food itself, do not buy food with signs of spoilage or damaged package
- Store food properly, according to the instructions provided by the manufacturer
- Check the refrigerator and freezer temperatures and keep the storage locals clean
- Check the expiry date of stored food regularly and consume foods that are close to the expiry date before other foods
In this article, we discussed how safe is it to eat expired food, what the Health Agencies say about eating expired food in different countries, how to reduce the risks of eating expired food and how to prevent food from expiring.
I avoid discarding food to reduce food waste to a minimum and usually consume expired food after examining the food thoroughly in terms of odour, colour and texture.
My experience says that canned goods, dry grains, UHT milk, high-acid food products, such as seasonings, and high-sugar products, such as chocolate are safe to eat after the expiration date when no sign of spoilage is noticed.
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