Spoiled Food: Can You Trust Your Nose?

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Back in college, when "cooking" at home involved two ingredients -- milk and cereal -- the sniff test was all you needed to know about when your food spoiled. If the milk smelled bad, you dumped it (and substituted beer). End of story.

But now that you've expanded your ingredients list to include items from the grocery store's other 18 aisles, things are a bit more complicated. For example: What's the difference between a "sell by" date and a "use by" date? And if I put the meat in the freezer, how long will it last before I have to toss it? (Hint: The answer to this last one is not "forever.")

With help from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a global group of food scientists and food research organizations, we've put together a quick tutorial to help guide you toward fresher food, and away from the bathroom -- the place where spoiled food tends to make its presence known. How to Decipher Dates

Sell By: This marks the approximate date when the quality of the food or drink will start to diminish, and so grocery stores must stop selling the product. You can usually consume whatever it is for a few more days—provided it looks and smells normal. But it may not be as tasty or nutrient-rich as it should be, explains Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., chief science officer of a Chicago-based food research firm and a spokesperson for IFT.

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Best If Used By / Best Before

This has little to do with food safety, and everything to do with quality and flavor, Shelke says. You'll often see this type of date on condiments like mustard, mayonnaise, and peanut butter. You can still eat these products past the date marked on the package, but their taste or consistency may be a little off.

Expires On: Usually found on baby food, medicine, health products, and any items regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Shelke explains. Once this date has passed, toss it.

Use By: This is essentially the same as an expiration date, though not regulated by the federal government. If you're past this date, throw it out.

The Best Temp for Your Fridge

Temperature makes all the difference when it comes to preserving your food. If either the freezer or the fridge's main compartment is too warm, harmful bacteria will form on food, says an IFT report. Make sure your refrigerator temp remains between 33 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and your freezer is set at 0 degrees. Any warmer, and you're asking for trouble, Shelke says. You'll need a thermometer for this, but any hardware store likely sells one in the $5 range.

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Food Rules

Here are some tips on food storage and safety related to a few popular staples:

Meat

The higher the fat content, the more quickly the meat will go bad, Shelke says. If you refrigerate promptly after purchasing, you should be fine until the "sell by" date, but probably not far past it. Meat will last longer in the freezer, but not indefinitely. Frozen beef needs to be consumed within 3 months, while pork keeps in the freezer for 6 months, according to an IFT study. Frozen lamb, veal, poultry, and venison will last between 8 and 12 months. Just make sure you wrap your meat tightly in plastic and store it in a zipper-lock plastic bag. This prevents air from drying out and spoiling the meat, Shelke explains.

Cheese

Spoilage depends a lot on the type of cheese, but a few guidelines apply, Shelke explains. American processed cheese in individually wrapped slices will last 1 to 2 months. Blue cheese will keep 3 to 4 weeks when sold as a wedge, but only 5 to 7 days when crumbled. Brie, Camembert, and any semi-soft cheese will last 1 week. Hard cheeses like Colby, Muenster, or cheddar can 1 month, but may develop mold. If that happens, cut away about an inch of cheese all around the mold, Shelke says.

Pasta Sauce

Whether homemade or commercially prepared, you've got 3 to 4 days once the sauce has been opened before you need to dump it, Shelke says. Even if it looks and smells fine, bacteria can develop that your senses can't detect.

Salt, sugar, honey, cornstarch, and almost all types of rice never go bad if kept in a cool, dry place. Brown rice is the exception; it has a high oil content, and should be thrown out if it starts to smell rancid, Shelke explains.

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