One of the items in your fridge carries a best-before date from two months ago. Another bears a date that just passed a few days earlier. A third still has a week to go before it hits its date.

Which one should you keep? Hint: It’s a trick question.

“Things can, from a food safety perspective, go wrong either before or after the date,” says Michael von Massow, an associate professor of food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph.

“Don’t necessarily use that best-before date as the absolute be-all and end-all as to whether that product is good or no good.”

Although many foods and other products contain best-before dates, they are only a legal requirement in Canada for items which will lose their freshness in 90 days or fewer after packaging.

Expiration dates, after which foods may not have the same nutrient content as is listed on their label, are required for only a handful of items – including baby formula, meal replacements and some supplements.

According to von Massow, many Canadians seem to believe the two dates are interchangeable, and refuse to consume any product past its best-before date.

What a best-before date really indicates is the time after which the food is no longer expected to be at its top quality. It can often still be safe to eat, von Massow says – just maybe not as tasty as it had been before.

“It’s my belief that the best-before date is probably the least well understood piece of information on food packaging today,” he says.

“People perceive that the day that a product hits its best-before date, it’s done.”

There are a number of factors which can impact spoilage, including when its packaging was first opened and how it was stored. Improper storage can lead to items spoiling in advance of their best before date, while proper preservation can keep them usable for much longer.

Recommendations for anyone looking to determine whether their food has spoiled include smelling it and looking at it, as many items’ physical characteristics change once they are no longer fresh.

A recent report from the National Zero Waste Council called best-before dates a major contributor to food waste in Canada. One recent study found that the average Canadian wastes or loses about 400 kilograms of food per year, with nearly half of that loss occurring at home.

The council recommends that Canada standardize its terms for shelf life dates. In some other parts of the word, phrases such as “use by” and “tastes best by” are starting to dot product labels.

Other recommendations include having food producers and retailers package their products in smaller servings and improve their inventory control processes.

With files from The Canadian Press