While you’re shopping for essentials for your weekly meals, you’ve probably seen dates stamped on food packaging. So what exactly do those dates mean? Well, the short answer is: It depends on the food labels.

Date stamping isn’t required in the United States for food products aside from baby formula. But many companies do include a date stamp on food items. The date stamp includes a month and day of the month, and one of three food labels will typically accompany it — sell-by, use-by or best-by.

So, what’s the difference? Let’s sort it out.

Sell-by Food Labels

When a product’s packaging includes a date and the words “sell by,” the food label tells retail stores how long to keep a product on the shelves. It’s not an expiration date. It’s more of a guide. That way, retailers know when to sell a product within its freshest lifespan.

Use-by Food Labels

If the words “use by” accompany the date on a package, it’s intended to let you know how long it’s safe to consume the product. You may not get sick if you eat the item after the use-by date. However, it will impact the quality of the product.

The date on this type of package is the last date that the manufacturer recommends you eat the product so that it’s at the best quality.

Best-by Food Labels

When “best by” accompanies a date on food labels, it means something a little different than either “sell by” or “use by.” This type of date only indicates how long a product will have the best flavor or be of the highest quality.

If you pick up a box of Sunbelt Bakery products, you’ll find a best-by date, designed to let you know when our products are at their best! This is why we bring our products to your neighborhood every week, so you can be sure you’ll always get the bakery-fresh taste you love.

So, what’s the final word about dates on foods? If a food smells funny or looks bad, don’t eat it. If a product is perishable, refrigerate it or freeze it until you’re ready to eat it. These two rules should help you navigate food this year.