Wait—What Happens When You Eat Expired Food?

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what happens if you eat expired food

Picture this: You’re hankering for an afternoon snack, and find an old bag of chips that look good enough. After eating a few handfuls, you happen to look at the package and realize it expired 12 weeks ago. Oops.

Now what? What happens if you eat expired food? Is eating expired food bad? 

Fun fact: “Food does not expire,” says Mitzi Baum, the chief executive officer at Stop Foodborne Illness. “Food can spoil and become unsafe, but it doesn’t expire.”

Looking at the USDA website, you’ll see the statement: “Many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety.”

Baum says a notable exception is baby food, which does expire. If you’re reading this, baby food likely isn’t on your menu. So, at what does eating food after the date listed on the package become unsafe for an adult? Experts explained.

Related: Is It 100% Safe to Drink Tap Water? Here’s the Truth

What Happens If You Eat ‘Expired’ Food

1. Nothing

The chances are that you’ll be OK if you consume food that’s technically past its expiration date. That’s because it’s not an expiration date. 

“A ‘best if used by,’ ‘better if used by’ or ‘BIUB’ date refers to the date by which the food producer suggests you eat or use the product to optimize taste or appearance,” says Jason Levee, RD, a registered dietitian with Whole Family Health. “Quality can diminish over time without affecting food safety. A sell-by date is for inventory management for food retailers and has no direct bearing on food safety.”

Which is why you’ll probably be just fine. “If an individual eats a food that is past its quality date—or best-by, consume-by or tastiest-by date—typically nothing will happen,” Baum says. “If it doesn’t taste fresh or has an off-putting odor, most individuals will naturally decide not to consume it and throw it out.”

Related: About To Cook Freezer Burn Beef? Think Again. Here’s How Long Meat Really Lasts in the Freezer

2. You get a tummy ache

Sometimes, you may experience a stomach ache with other unpleasant side effects like vomiting and diarrhea. “Often our body knows that it is not good, so [you] will vomit in order to get every part of it out of your system,” Levee says. 

Ditto for diarrhea: Levee says that GI irritation can also trigger the runs. 

3. You’ll consume fewer nutrients

Food provides vital nutrients that help keep our bodies functioning well. A lower nutritional value may be part of the quality decline.

“Food labeling regulations state nutritional value must be maintained during the shelf life of products,” says Jill Stuber, a food safety consultant and coach at Catalyst LLC. “Therefore, consuming expired products may simply mean the consumer will receive less nutrients from the food than they thought were present.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t eat it. You just may not be getting the vitamins, minerals or protein you were hoping for from the dish. 

Related: Making Hamburgers for Dinner? Here’s How To Tell if Your Ground Beef Is Bad Before You Eat It

4. You’ll feel less satisfied

Besides nutrients, food is a sensory experience—the taste and smell, in particular. Stuber says that the lower quality after the “best-by” date may leave you feeling disappointed. Think stale chips or cookies that simply don’t taste the same.

“The chips may not be as crispy, the crackers may be a little stale and the seasonings will likely not be as potent,” Baum says. “However, it will not harm you.”

5. You’ll deal with dehydration

This one is a byproduct of the stomach ache you may have gotten from eating food after the date on the package.

“Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to high levels of fluid loss, which can be hazardous to your health,” Stuber says. “Severe dehydration may lead to hospitalization.”

6. You’ll contract an illness like E. coli or Salmonella

This potential side effect of eating “expired” food—or food that’s spoiled—is one of the more severe. “For products past expiration dates, namely perishable products, there is a risk that harmful bacteria has grown to levels that can make consumers sick,” Stuber says.

Symptoms of foodborne illness include the aforementioned nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Related: 7 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Don’t Eat Enough Vegetables

How to Tell If Food Is Spoiled or Unsafe to Eat

We know expiration dates don’t actually mean all that much. If that’s the case, how can we tell if food is no longer safe to eat? “Not all spoilage is easily visible, like mold on bread or slimy lettuce, so at times, people may consume products that have had microbial growth,” Stuber says. 

Because spoiled food can make you sick, smell is a great indicator that something isn’t safe to eat. If something smells “off” to you—think that sour smell when milk has gone bad—it’s probably not a good idea to consume it. 

Related: Does Your Steak Seem a Little Off? How To Tell if Steak Is Bad, According to Chefs & Culinary Pros

Is Eating Expired Food Bad?

One more time, for the people in the back: “Food does not expire,” Baum says. “The only food product in the United States that has a regulated expiration date is baby food. The date on all other packaged foods denotes that the quality of a product may be depleted.” 

OK, but what happens when you consume food after the best-by date? Is it bad? Not necessarily. “Eating a shelf-stable food such as crackers, chips and seasonings past a quality date is OK,” Baum says. 

They may not taste as good, but Baum says that it’s not possible to determine the precise date a food goes from safe to unsafe. The freeze-by date is another one to pay attention to, though. 

“The freeze-by date on proteins is there to assist the consumer with preserving the product,” Baum says. “By freezing the protein, it reduces the incidence of spoilage organisms growing and causing the product to ‘go bad’ and stops harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness from growing.”

Related: The #1 Unexpected Sign of Seasonal Allergies Most People Miss, According to Allergists

Food Safety Tips

While most food doesn’t expire, consumers can still follow some basic safety rules to ensure their meal hits all the right notes. Baum says these rules include:

  • Purchasing food from a reputable source
  • Keeping your refrigerator and freezer at the recommended temperatures: 40 degrees F for a fridge and 0 degrees F or below for a freezer
  • Separating raw proteins like meat, poultry and seafood from fresh, ready-to-eat foods like produce
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw proteins
  • Use different utensils for raw proteins and ready-to-eat foods
  • Cook raw proteins to the recommended internal temperature and check them with a meat thermometer before serving

Some people may take extra precautions when considering whether or not to consume food after the date on the package.

“Many immune-compromised individuals, such as pregnant people or individuals with a chronic medical condition, choose not to consume foods after the quality date on the label as a preventive measure,” Baum says.

Stuber suggests using the FoodKeeper app for insights on proper storage and package dates.

Next up: Here’s What It Means If You’re Suddenly Craving Milk

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