Ask the Doctors by Eve Glazier, M.D. and Elizabeth Ko, M.D

Most Food Still OK Past Sell-By Date

Hello again, dear readers, and thank you for joining us for this month’s letters column. It’s a difficult and challenging time, and we’re more grateful than ever for the community that has sprung up in response to Ask the Doctors.

-- A reader from Ohio, Illinois, who is her dad’s caregiver, asked for guidance on expiration dates on food items. “He buys more food than he needs, and it stays in the refrigerator well past the ‘sell-by’ date,” she wrote. “I’ve brought it up several times, but we just argue because he thinks it’s OK.”

You’re correct that it’s important to be vigilant about food freshness and safety. Older adults are at increased risk of hospitalization, and even death, due to food-borne illness. You mentioned your father’s handling of prepared foods, like baked chicken, as well as staples like eggs and bacon. It’s helpful to know that the sell-by dates on packaged foods refer to food quality rather than food safety. Eggs that remain refrigerated are safe to use for up to three weeks beyond the sell-by date. A package of bacon can be kept refrigerated for up to a week beyond the sell-by date. With prepared foods, however, the window becomes much smaller. When refrigerated properly, cooked chicken will last for three to four days. After that, it’s not safe and should be thrown away.

-- A reader from Omaha, Nebraska, wondered about health benefits attributed to a few teaspoonfuls of apple cider vinegar per day. It’s an age-old folk remedy, and while many of the claims are far-fetched -- no, you can’t replace blood pressure meds with apple cider vinegar -- there is some evidence that it can be helpful. For instance, studies have shown that apple cider vinegar may play a modest role in control of blood sugar. It may also aid in weight loss by suppressing appetite. However, apple cider vinegar is an acid, which can erode tooth enamel. Be sure to always rinse your mouth thoroughly after having any.

-- A reader from Dallas, Pennsylvania, sent us an ingredient label from his favorite food, a prepared meal of Salisbury steak with macaroni and cheese. He asks if it contains dangerous ingredients. Although the ingredients themselves are benign, the nutritional information has some bad news. One serving contains 1,110 milligrams of sodium, which is almost half the recommended daily value. The saturated fat content is also a bit high, at 30%. Rather than a daily meal, it would be wise to make this a weekly treat. Instead, add some lean meat, fresh vegetables, whole grains and healthy oils to your diet. Your body -- and your family doctor -- will thank you.

-- After reading a column about improving indoor air quality during a wildfire, a reader from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was baffled by the advice to refrain from dusting or vacuuming. “How do you keep the house clean?” he wrote. “Isn’t it impossible?” Those tasks kick up significant particulates, so it’s wise to defer them when air quality is bad, as during a wildfire. Once the outdoor air has cleared, it’s safe to dust and vacuum.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)