'Use before', 'sell by', 'expires on' -- the various terms can be unclear and often leave Americans wondering what food in their pantry or refrigerator is still good.

To make meal and snack times a little less confusing, the FDA announced this week that the term 'Best if Used By' is now the standardized label to be used on packaged food.

The catch? The term refers to the optimal quality of food -- not its safety.

The FDA says studies show this is the best way to make clear to consumers that some products don't have to be thrown out after the date on the label, if they are stored properly. 

The effort comes as part of a White House initiative called 'Winning on Reducing Food Waste'. The collaboration between the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture aims to help consumers reduce food loss and waste without risking illness from eating food that's expired.

According to the FDA, Americans throw out about a third -- or $161 billion worth -- of our food every year. Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates, the FDA says, leads to about 20 percent of food waste in homes.

Determining when a food is no longer acceptable for consumption is not an exact science, but the FDA says consumers can take precautions by checking products after the 'Best if Used By' date to determine their quality. If the products have changed in color, consistency, or texture -- you may want to avoid eating them.

Other ways to reduce food waste include:

  • refrigerating peeled or cut vegetables to maintain freshness, quality, and safety
  • use the freezer as your friend
  • avoid bulk and impulse purchases
  • request smaller portions when eating out, or bring your leftovers home and refrigerate/freeze them within two hours

To learn more from the FDA, click here.