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Expired or slightly 'off' food? If it's in your fridge, chances are you'll try it, experts say

MONDAY, Feb. 2 (HealthDay News) - Wondering whether to partake of that expired yogurt at the back of the fridge? What about that hunk of cheese with the bit of mold on top?

If you're like most Americans, you'll take the chance, a new study shows. In fact, spoiled or past-due foods that most people would quickly reject at the supermarket are much more eagerly consumed once they make it home.

That's because consumers are more likely to eat dubious foods once they actually own them, another sign of how people unconsciously give more value to things that are theirs, researchers say.

"We try to come up with justifications about why it's OK to consume what we already own and downplay the reasons why it might not be OK," said study co-author Lauren Block, a professor of marketing at Baruch College in New York City.

Block and her team aimed to examine the so-called "endowment effect." This refers to the extra value people give to things that they own. Studies have shown, for example, that people will sell a product they own for a much higher price than they'd be willing to pay to buy it from someone else.

In the new study, to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, the Baruch team examined data from 165 students who were questioned about their yogurt preferences. The students were given a yogurt smoothie that was past its "best if enjoyed by" date but was still safe to eat. Those in the "endowed" group were told the yogurt was theirs to keep.

Thirty-eight percent of those in the latter group were willing to drink the smoothie either right then or later. But only 13 percent of the students who didn't own the yogurt were willing to drink the smoothie. Those who were told to keep their smoothie were also less likely to think it would make them sick.

"Our results help explain why a person might consume expired food that they found in the fridge, but not consume expired food found in a friend's fridge," Block said.

People seem to rationalize eating the expired yogurt just as many of us adopt the "five-second rule," which states that food that falls on the floor remains edible if it's just there a few seconds, Block said.

The new study has implications for health and safety, experts say, since it suggests that once products make it to consumers' homes, safety labeling such as the "Best Before" date begins to lose its meaning. According to Block, companies could help consumers by doing a better job of communicating information about expiration dates -- and not just when it comes to food.

"For example, many consumers do not know that sunscreen, condoms, fire extinguishers and medicine lose efficacy over time," she said. "Our research suggests that consumers may underestimate the risk associated with using products past their expiration dates, and for some products, this might have a negative consequence."

And what about foods? Fresh, edible products "don't suddenly go bad with overgrowth of bacteria and harmful substances on the expiration date," said Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern. "But after that freshness date, bacteria may start to grow slowly and ruin the quality of the food."

Canned goods typically have a much longer shelf life, Sandon said, "but leave them too long and you get something that just doesn't taste right. If the can is not dented, bloated, or leaking, the ingredients are probably safe from bacteria," she said. However, "the texture and flavor of the food is likely to be poor. Things like canned tomatoes may start to become more acidic over time. This may not be harmful to your health, but it doesn't taste good."

More information

Learn more about food safety from Fight Bac.

SOURCES: Lauren Block, Ph.D., professor, marketing, Baruch College, City University of New York, New York City; Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., assistant professor, clinical nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; June 2009 Journal of Consumer Research

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