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Published May 11, 2012, 12:00 AM

Prairie Fare: How to decode symbols on packaged food

“This food is rated ‘R,’ so it’s not for me!” my 8-year-old daughter exclaimed. I think I nearly sprained my neck as I spun my head in her direction. I wanted to see what she was examining. “What are you talking about?” I asked in surprise.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“This food is rated ‘R,’ so it’s not for me!” my 8-year-old daughter exclaimed.

I think I nearly sprained my neck as I spun my head in her direction. I wanted to see what she was examining.

“What are you talking about?” I asked in surprise.

She grinned and pointed to the “R” by a picture on a food package. I think she was teasing me.

“Oh, that’s not a rating, like a movie rating,” I explained. “R stands for registered trademark, not R rated. That means that other companies cannot use that symbol on another food, or they will be in legal trouble.”

She lost interest in my food law lesson and trotted off to another activity. I kept looking at the box.

Food packages contain a wide variety of information that includes items that are required and many items that are not required.

Companies must list the name of the food, the company name and address (or contact information) and net weight.

While most foods provide nutrition information, not all foods are required to contain nutrition labels.

As I looked at the food package, I noted other letters and numbers that might be confusing. Try this short quiz to see what you know about the various letters and dates you might see on a food package.


1. What does the letter “U” mean on a food package? If the letter “U” has a “D” next to it, what does that mean?

2. You noticed that two boxes of cereal in your cupboard have “best by” dates that expired one month ago. Can you safely use these boxes of cereal?

3. You were trying to decipher the age of some eggs in your refrigerator, and you noticed the number 32 on the package. What would that indicate?

4. You were helping your aunt clean her cupboards and you found some canned goods in the back of the cupboard. A dusty can of tomatoes has the number 3052 listed on it. What would that tell you?

How did you do? Here are the answers.

1. The letter “U” on a food means that the food is kosher. It was processed according to Jewish dietary laws. Foods that are certified kosher can carry a U in a circle or a K in a circle, star or triangle. A “D” refers to dairy, so the “D” indicates the kosher product also contains milk.

2. Yes, you can use the cereal. As long as dry goods, such as cereal, are kept cool and dry, they last beyond their package quality date.

Through time, the nutritional value in the foods may decrease and the flavor may decline, but most likely you will not notice any changes after just one month.

A “best by” or “best if used by” date is a quality date, not a safety date. Most people prefer high-quality foods, so be sure to label your products with the date of purchase and arrange your cupboards in a first in, first out order.

3. Eggs typically carry a Julian date that indicates the day the eggs were packed. The number 001 refers to the first day of the year, Jan. 1. Since January has 31 days, an egg carton with a 32 on it would have been packed Feb. 1.

By the way, typically eggs have a shelf life of three to five weeks in your refrigerator as long as your refrigerator maintains a temperature of 40 degrees or lower.

4. Can codes are quite confusing. If you got this question correct, give yourself a pat on the back. The manufacturers can have their own dating systems, and you may have to contact the manufacturer to determine what the date means.

That said, a code of 3052 probably means your tomatoes were canned in March (the third month of the year), on the fifth day in 2002. Your canned tomatoes are well past their prime because most acidic canned foods have a shelf life in your home cupboard of 18 months. Toss them.

You can learn more about food storage in our newly updated “food storage guide” available at: www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn579.pdf.

Check out your cupboard. Do you have any canned beans or tomatoes available to make a tasty meal? Beans add fiber, protein, natural antioxidants and the B vitamin folate to your menus.

Drain and rinse the canned beans with water to decrease the amount of sodium they contain.


Pinto Bean Beef Tacos

1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed

1½ pounds lean ground beef

1 medium green pepper, diced

2 tablespoon onion, chopped

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2¼ teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

24 taco shells

2 cups lettuce

6 ounces cheddar cheese

Mash beans with a fork and add some water to make a thick puree. Brown ground beef.

Add pepper, onion, sugar, salt, chili powder and cumin. Cook three to five minutes.

Add tomato sauce and bean puree to the beef mixture.

Simmer on low for 30 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally.

Fill taco shells with meat mixture and top with lettuce and cheese.

Makes 12 servings. Each serving has 340 calories, 14 grams (g) of fat, 24 g of protein, 26 g of carbohydrates and 600 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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