Shelf life labels used in connection with food may include "best before" or "use by" dates and others.
In 2012, a study examined whether the people in Denmark knew the difference between these labels, and in 2015, scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark examined if knowledge of the labels had improved and if consumers were able to distinguish between them.
Further, the scientists examined whether people trust their senses when it comes to finding out if the food is still edible or should be thrown away.
Professor Liisa Lahteenmaki from the Aarhus department of management is one of the authors of a new report outlining the results of the new studies. She explained, "We were rather eager to see if the major focus on food waste in recent years would change how the Danes act in relation to food shelf life."
Modest improvement in food label knowledge
While the quality of food may be evaluated by looking at it, smelling it or tasting it, taking a big bite may be a potential health risk when it comes to perishable foods that have passed the "use by" date.
It is important that consumers know the different meanings of the labels. Products labeled "best before" or "usable at least until" may be eaten after the expiration date if the sensory quality is acceptable, the Aarhus news release noted. As for products labeled "use by," consumers should be aware of the label and discard the food once the date has passed.
In general, the researchers found that knowledge of food labels had improved in 2015 compared to the 2012 study. However, it was a rather modest increase, which could be partly due to the fact that consumers already had a relatively high knowledge of the labels in the 2012 study. Approximately 70% of participants in the 2015 study correctly answered the questions related to the labels.
Today, however, it is obvious that food waste plays an increasing role in consumer awareness, according to Aarhus. The new study clearly demonstrated that significantly more consumers know that food labeled "best before" does not constitute a health risk even though the date has expired.
Too much food still thrown away
However, food waste is still a problem. The study demonstrated that between 10% and 42% of the respondents, depending on the product category, throw away food that likely could be eaten after the best before date without even checking if the food is still edible.
Trust in the ability to assess whether food is in edible condition varies among products. People often check bread before it is thrown out, but fewer taste yogurt to see if it is edible three to four days after the expiration date.
Our senses — and the degree to which we trust them — also play a decisive role when it comes to displaying risk behavior and taste the food after the use-by date. Older study participants and those who trusted their senses were more likely to display risk behavior and taste food that should actually be thrown away after the expiration date.
"Consumers trust their senses, and this is good in relation to some food products as it helps us reduce food waste. However, it may also be a disadvantage concerning other types of food as it may pose a health risk. The same behavior may, thus, be good in some cases but rather unsuitable in others," Lahteenmaki said.