If you’ve ever been baffled by the date labels on packaged foods while grocery shopping or deciding whether to throw away “perished” foods, you’re not alone. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental action group, and Harvard revealed that last year, over 90% of Americans chucked out their purchases prematurely.

This happens because so many people misunderstand and confound labels such as “use by,” “best if used by,” and “expires by.” It’s crucial to stick to the dates labeled on absolutely perishable foods such as poultry and dairy. But not all dates indicate those of spoilage—the majority of them point, in fact, to dates when the foods are at their prime in terms of taste and texture.

Dana Gunders, a NRDC staff scientist, mentioned that many grocery store employees aren’t appropriately trained to distinguish between the labels. So only you can make the call next time you look at a label.

Here is a guide to when you should throw out some key products, and a breakdown of the true meaning behind those expiration date stickers. 
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An analysis by the NRDC found that approximately $165 billion worth of what is perceived as “expired food” is wasted each year. Very horrifyingly, a mere 15% of this wasted food would be able to feed more than 25 million Americans every year. We already know how entire communities in the country go hungry.

Andrew Shakman, president of LeanPath, a Portland-based company that monitors food waste in foodservice organizations, said that composting is a good way to stop wasting food, and that it helps people see exactly how much food and money they’re throwing away.

Phil Lempert, CEO of SupermarketGuru.com, added to this sentiment with this comment on overconsumption,

“We have a tendency to overbuy and overcook. Awareness of how much food you’re wasting does help people buy properly. As prices go up, people also become more aware.”

And he was right. Purchasers/food wasters better beware—according to the USDA, last year saw a rise of 2.5 to 3.5% in the price of groceries. The costs can only go up from here.

[via Kitchen Daily, MarketWatch]