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Should you toss the food or eat it?

This dip can help you use up veggies and yogurt sitting in your refrigerator. Photo courtesy of Midwest Dairy Association1 / 2
Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service. Photo special to The Forum.2 / 2

I answer a lot of questions by phone and email, and food storage questions usually top the list.

"I picked up food at a fast-food restaurant for my daughter, and the milk container had a date that is three months from now," the male caller said. "Is that true? I didn't think she should drink it."

"I bet it was UHT milk," I replied. "That means it is ultra-high-temperature pasteurized. UHT milk is sterile. It lasts a long time and doesn't require refrigeration.

"Check that the label says 'UHT' to be sure, but it should be fine to drink," I added.

UHT milk is heated to 275 F for one or two seconds, and the high temperature kills bacteria and any spores (inactive forms of bacteria). Some people may detect a slight change in the flavor due to the heating process.

Combined with "aseptic packaging," the UHT heating technology also is used to extend the shelf life for many other products such as fruit juice. "Aseptic" means the packaging technique is free from contamination.

The thousands of fresh, frozen, canned and dried foods in grocery stores are made possible through the advances in science.

Do you ever throw out food? Are the dates and other terminology on packages sometimes confusing? If you answer "yes" to either question, you are not alone.

About 1 out of every 3 pounds of food is wasted. Dairy foods are thrown out more often than any other food. Often, the foods are still safe to eat, but consumers are confused by the dates on the packages.

Throwing away food is like dropping money in the trash.

In fact, the average person wastes at least 1.1 pounds of food daily. For a family of four, that adds up to 1,606 pounds of food ending up in the landfill every year.

According to a 2014 survey with 1,010 respondents from throughout the U.S., 42 percent had heard about food waste and 24 percent said they were very knowledgeable about food waste.

The respondents cited saving money, setting an example for their children and managing their household efficiently as motivators to avoid tossing food. They also were motivated to curtail food waste when they thought about people with not enough food. Most reported they felt guilty about wasting food.

The researchers noted that 39 percent of consumers consult the "use by" date and 22 percent used the "sell by" date to determine when to throw out milk.

Food dates are included on most foods, but, except for infant formula, food dates are not required by federal regulations. In fact, confusion about food product dates probably is responsible for lot of foods being tossed while they are still safe to eat.

Sometimes consumers interpret the package dates as the "toss out at home" dates. The "sell by" date is the last date the store can display the item in the refrigerated case. As long as the food is stored properly, it is safe to use for several days or longer beyond the date.

You might see "Use by," "Sell by" or "Best if used by" on packages. These are "quality" dates, not "expiration" dates. With the exception of baby formula, food product dates are not about food safety. In fact, when properly stored and handled, foods can be used safely at home beyond the date.

In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided some updated guidance. It recommended that food manufacturers and retailers use a uniform "Best if used by" date on packages instead of the variety of terms that are used.

Yes, you can use your senses (smell, appearance) to help determine if a food is safe to use. If a food shows signs of spoilage such as mold or off-odors, of course you will want to throw it out.

With the exception of shelf-stable UHT milk, be sure to store dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese) in a refrigerator at 40 F or lower. You probably would prefer UHT milk refrigerated, unless you like warm milk.

Dairy food can be used after the dates on the package when properly stored:

• Milk can be used up to one week past the sell-by date.

• Soft cheese (Brie, Neufchatel, etc.) can last one to four weeks after the sell-by date.

• Hard cheese (cheddar, Colby, etc.) lasts up to 10 months after the sell-by date.

• Yogurt lasts up to 10 days after the sell-by date.

If dairy products have an unusual flavor or odor, throw them away. If hard cheese (cheddar, etc.) has mold, cut a 1-inch square around the moldy area; the rest of the cheese is OK to use. Moldy yogurt or soft cheese should be thrown away.

You can take some steps to reduce your own food waste. Buy what you need, and plan your meals around what you have on hand. Freeze leftovers if you won't use them in a reasonable time.

Do you have any veggies in your fridge or yogurt waiting to be used? Try this refreshing dip with a variety of vegetables. The recipe is courtesy of the Midwest Dairy Association.

Cucumber Yogurt Dip

1 cup low-fat plain yogurt

4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, softened

½ cup diced, seeded cucumber

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

1 teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Soften the cream cheese by heating a few seconds in a microwave. Blend with yogurt. Add remaining ingredients and blend. Refrigerate. Serve with your choice of fresh vegetables.

Makes six servings. Each serving has 70 calories, 3.5 grams (g) fat, 4 g protein, 5 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber and 95 milligrams sodium.

Garden-Robinson is a food and nutrition specialist for the NDSU Extension Service.