There are marked differences in our approaches to food waste and how we shop for food based on “Best Before” and “Use By” dates on food packaging, new research has found.

In its latest Shopper Index, category and shopper management specialist Bridgethorne found that shoppers claim to regularly refer to use-by dates, with 75% of us looking more than 2-3 times per week, suggesting that ensuring we have the freshest products in our cupboards is important to us.

The over 55s seem more pragmatic about using food that is past a sell-by date, probably using past knowledge and experience to judge if it is okay to eat. Less experienced shoppers, however, are the least confident and rely much more on the advice on pack as to whether it should be used. 96% of retired people compared with 86% of those at the pre-family life stage say they understand the difference between “Best Before” and “Use By” dates. At home women are likely to check “Best Before” and “Use By” dates more regularly than men – 40% daily compared with just 29% of men. 53% of those in the pre-family life stage check daily compared with just 37% of families and only 33% of empty nesters.

But when out shopping the difference is event more noticeable. Unsurprisingly it is fresh products that shoppers check most frequently and for which they are most reliant on dates to help decide whether to use or throw away. Fresh meat and fish is the category where we pay most attention to “Best Before” and “Use By” dates with 66% of respondents saying they check labels every time they plan to buy. The over 55s seem most concerned with 82% always checking before they buy compared to just 68% of the 35-54 age group and only 39% of the 18-34 age group.

This is closely followed by chilled dairy products, where 64% of respondents say they always check labelling when shopping, compared with only half who check chilled ready meals every time. Just 16% of respondents say they check “Best Before” and “Use By” dates on tinned food and jars when shopping.

Nearly half of respondents (46%) say they think twice about using food beyond its “Best Before” or “Use By” date (51% among women); 39% of the over 55s say they ignore the dates and use the food anyway. 56% of respondents say that if items are close to their “Best Before” or “Use By” dates they are less likely to buy them, although this is significantly higher among Pre family (69%) compared with just 54% of families, 52% of empty nesters and 54% of those who are retired.

The freezer appear to have an important role to play with 39% of shoppers claiming to use it in order to ensure that food is eaten at its freshest. Retailers are doing their bit to help, providing storage advice on loose produce bags, reminding us that keeping most fruit & veg in the fridge helps it stay fresher for longer and to ensure we waste as little as possible.

“The data from this Shopper Index shows that there is a high level of understanding about the difference between Best Buy and Use By dates,” comments John Nevens, Joint Managing Director, Bridgethorne.

“However, the difference between this and how different shoppers act on the information available to them on products suggest that shoppers are comfortable using this information to make their own decisions about what they should buy and when.”

The Index also found that recycling household waste and reducing food waste are issues that take on greater importance to us as we get older and are far more important to women than to men.

Recycling household waste is our top environmental concern, named by nearly three quarters of respondents, followed closely by saving household energy (70%) and reducing food waste (69%). However, all three were ranked as higher in importance by women than men: 75% of women were concerned with reducing food waste compared to just 54% of men.

Around 15 million tonnes of food waste is thrown away every year; with nearly 50% of this coming from households (Source: Love Food Hate Waste website) and an overwhelming 94% of shoppers agree that it is important. These issues appear to grow in importance the older we get. Just 63% of 18-34s said recycling household waste and reducing food waste were importance issues, compared with 86% and 79% of the over 55s respectively.

Although nearly a third of us think that retailers and manufacturers have a role to play, the majority believe we are jointly responsible as individuals for the reduction of food waste. However, The difference in attitude between age groups was also evident here, with only 68% of 18-34s assuming personal responsibility compared with 91% of 35-54 ad 92% of over 55s.

“Shoppers are engaged with environmental issues, but the desire to reduce waste and recycle, is greater than the reality of what shoppers actually do,” continues Nevens.

“Food waste is linked with communications on pack. The older generations are less reliant on this information, choosing to rely more on experience and senses, to decide if something is okay to consume. But more practical solutions to reduce food waste for younger shoppers could be really helpful to educate them on how to use products that could otherwise have been thrown away.”

The Bridgethorne Shopper Index is a quarterly survey of shopper opinions from category and shopper management specialist, Bridgethorne. It gauges satisfaction, loyalty and future propensity to purchase.