“Best By Date”- Is it Legit?
As a consumer, have you ever wondered about the “Best by Date” on your package of cookies, cereal, or candy bar? Is there really a specific date when the food product magically goes bad? How do companies determine that date? Where does it come from? Read on to learn more about shelf life testing and the LIMS software and stability module that can help streamline food product dating.
Understanding Food Product Dating
In the United States, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) heavily regulates the food industry. However, there is no regulation around food product dating (with the exception of Infant Formula). It is at the discretion of the manufacturer to place a “Best if Used By”, or “Sell-By” date on a product. Most manufacturers choose to label their product with some sort of “Use-By” date. This gives the company some protection against a consumer calling and complaining about an item that has been sitting on a shelf for years.
There are several different types of dates that are used by manufacturing companies, “Sell-By” date, “Best if used by” date, or a “Use-By” date. The “Sell-By” date is used to advise the store how long to display the product for sale. This product should be purchased before that date expires. The “Best if Used By” date is recommended for best quality and flavor. It is not a purchase or a safety date, and stores can still sell the product after this date. The “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for use while at peak quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
Shelf Life Testing in Food Labs
So how do food manufacturers determine what date to use? Is there some kind of testing that they perform on the product to determine if they need a longer or shorter “Best if Used By” Date? The answer is complex, but the short version is, “YES.”
Most companies determine the answers to these questions by performing some type of Shelf Life Testing or Product Stability Study. These are very time consuming studies that can last from several months to a year. In order to simulate shipping and storage conditions throughout the world, samples are exposed to several different temperature and humidity conditions. The samples and conditions are tracked through multiple tests pulled from the sample set over the duration of the study. These smaller tests, done within the body of the entire study, provide the data points necessary for analysis of product stability and shelf life.
In addition to strict scientific methodology used by food scientists in product testing labs, further tests are also obtained from trained panel sensory analysis. Trained sensory panels make real-life observations to help determine the quality of the product over its shelf life. Sensory panels can pick up on rancid notes, off flavors, low flavor, and many other sensory type indicators that signal the product has decreased in quality. These studies are labor intensive, from the planning stages through to the compilation and analyzation of data.
In the past, many shelf life stability studies were conducted using excessive man-hours and overwhelming spreadsheets. Now, lab management software is the most efficient way to track the information in these studies. A shelf life stability module in a LIMS system allows companies to modernize, leaving behind Excel spreadsheets as the primary tracking and charting program for stability studies.
These studies can be run with a validated workflow in the Thermo Scientific™ SampleManager LIMS™ software. This solution gives companies the ability to quickly create stability studies with multiple time points, temperature conditions, and a multitude of different, trackable measurement types. It is flexible enough to allow for the design of virtually any stability study and for easy of searching the results.
Analytical Laboratory Testing
Analytical laboratory testing is necessary in a Food and Beverage company, to ensure the side panel information on a product is accurate. Heavy regulation by the Food & Drug Administration means it is critical that product formulas are accurately represented. Macro nutrients or indicator compounds (such as Hexanal which indicates rancidity of the product) are carefully measured during analytical testing. This type of testing is typically conducted to ensure the product quality is upheld throughout the course of the study.
SampleManager LIMS software – validated workflow can help meet the needs of Food and Beverage companies. SampleManager LIMS software offers a great solution for shelf life testing and analytical food product dating studies. The LIMS allows companies to track samples across many different conditions over a range of time. It allows labs to utilize many different test types (analytical laboratory testing, and sensory panel testing) all in one study. It configures all of the data into concise reports and charts which clearly outline all of the data collected.
Jennifer Lake is a Customer Success Manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Previously, she was a Research Scientist and Analytical Lab Manager at Post Foods with a background in food chemistry and a primary focus on instrumental analysis. During her time at Post she implemented a LIMS and reduced the time spent working on Stability Studies by over 50%.