A pair of snowstorms that socked Iowa recently, accompanied by minus 45 degree wind chills, meant it was a good time to tackle some indoor projects. So when we weren’t scooping the nearly 2 feet of snow out of our driveway or babysitting pipes to make sure they wouldn’t freeze, we tackled one of the most daunting tasks of all — reorganizing our pantry.

Since we couldn’t make it to the grocery store for a couple days, it was a good opportunity to see what lurked on the shelves that could be turned into a hearty soup or casserole. One of the main tasks was looking for the “best by” dates on the cans of fruits and vegetables that were buried behind packages of cookies and chips. 

As we stacked and organized cans and boxes, I was reminded of a study from Purdue University that said food date labels such as “use by” and “best by” cause confusion that results in many consumers discarding food that is safe to eat or donate. 

The USDA defines “use by” and “best by” dates as references to peak food quality. However, the Purdue study found more than one-half of consumers improperly connect the dates with food safety. 

The Congressional Research Service reports that 7% of all U.S. food waste is because of date labeling confusion. The USDA says high acid foods such as tomatoes and other fruit will keep their best quality up to 18 months, while canned meat and vegetables can last two to five years. Of course, you should check for signs of spoilage like odors or bulging cans. 

But if you happen to find eight cans of garbanzo beans that are a couple months past their “best by” date, you can go ahead and whip up that batch of hummus that you never got around to making.