How to prepare your family to survive and thrive in todays uncertain world

The Shelf Life of Commercially Canned Foods

A reader asked me the other day about how long canned food stays good, and whether or not the ‘use by’ dates were particularly accurate. I figured the answer to that question would be interesting to more than just him…

As is all too often the case, the answer is ‘longer than you are being told by the folks that are selling it to you’ but for more details, read on!  Be sure to read the last section to learn how to avoid a sneaky trick the food companies try to pull on you!

Rudy’s Disclaimer: It should go without saying, but I will say it anyhow.  Be careful what you eat. Don’t push it if you’re not in a full on emergency. Botulism poisoning isn’t a fun thing.

You can’t hold me responsible for you eating bad food…etc etc…Be smart, be responsible.  Your health is more important than a can of food.

The Shelf Life of Commercially Canned Food

Generally speaking commercially canned foods are good for two to five years from the date they were packed. Of course the date they were packed and the ‘use by’ date stamped on the can are usually only vaguely related.

The packing date is generally also coded on the can but is generally in a code that is specific to the manufacturer. There are a couple of websites out there that have repositories of codes if you want to be sure.

The acid content of the food itself will change the shelf life as well. A high acid food like tomato sauce will not keep as long as a can of beans, for example.

Nutritionally speaking, canned foods don’t lose minerals but absolutely lose vitamins as time goes by. Vitamin A and C are the ones most affected, so you’ll want to consider making supplements for those vitamins part of your preps. While the vitamin content of foods is impacted the most when the food is canned, you will still lose anywhere from 5% to 20% of Vitamin A and C every year.

As with most food storage items, the storage conditions are a key factor in the shelf life of canned foods. You want to store them in a cool, dark, and above all dry place. Keep the cans away from fluctuating temperatures which can easily break seals.

Unlike some kinds of food, you really don’t want your cans to freeze because it can change the food texture, rust or rupture cans, or break the can seal. And be sure to store your cans off the floor to avoid moisture wicking. Absolutely avoid bare concrete.

It’s a good idea to label the cans with the purchase date to aid your ‘first in – first out’ rotation scheme.

So Rudy, This Can Is 8 Years Old, But Looks Perfect!

In many cases, cans are fine when older. The vitamin content may not be there, and the food quality may be barely above canned dog food, but it may not kill you.

If a can is badly dented, rusty, or bulging, toss it without opening it. If it’s leaky get rid of it. If the can itself passes visual inspection, go ahead and open it and take a look.

If you feel like passing out from the stench when you open it, it’s a safe bet that you shouldn’t eat it. In all seriousness, if it smells off, don’t eat it. If it looks wierd, you may want to avoid it as well, though there are some common appearance flaws that are actually ok.

A brown or dark color of the food is actually fine. It’s caused by the food pigments oxidizing or breaking down chemically, and doesn’t affect the safety of the food itself.

Mushy or soft food is also generally fine, as it’s simply just a chemical or age related breakdown of the food textures themselves.

Canned fish can have crystals formed, which are also just fine. They’re naturally formed Magnesium ammonium phosphate crystals and will dissolve when you heat the fish.

If the food looks generally ok, and smells ok, taste a little bit. Just a tish. Maybe feed some to your kids and see if they keel over (just kidding, Honey) … if it tastes off, toss it.

Highly acidic foods can get a metallic flavor from leaching some of the metal from the cans if the food has been stored too long or sits in an open can for too long. This is ok.

You might consider boiling the food or heating it to 165 degrees as a final safety measure if you’re in doubt … but honestly, if you’re in doubt and it isn’t a life and death situation … just toss the damn can. Your health isn’t worth a $0.75 can of green beans.

Those Tricksy Food Companies

In closing, one last note. Lately those tricksy food companies have been trying to bump up their bottom lines a bit by tweaking the use by dates they print on the cans.

In many cases they’re cutting the time in half or more, just because they know that most people will abide by those dates and go buy new cans. Talk about a sneaky way of increasing sales in an economic downturn…

Pretty insidious if you ask me, so try to figure out what the packing date was and go by that. You can also always call the company themselves and ask what the shelf life is (vs the use by dates) and get a better idea then.

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22 Responses to The Shelf Life of Commercially Canned Foods

  1. We got some expired juice from a friend who worked in the warehouse. I called the 100% Juice company and, after a lot of run around, finally got someone who told me the juice would be OK to drink for 2 years past the expiration date.

  2. Good Advice! Very helpful for those of us buying at low cost markets where dates are a little “iffy”. I also rotate and mark cans.

  3. Good Advice! Very helpful for those of us buying at low cost markets where dates are a little “iffy”. I also rotate and mark cans using the oldest first. I keep a list of stored food taped on the inside of my kitchen cabinet and regularly refer to it when making a grocery list.

  4. Most websites I’ve found seems to think the statement you make below is completely opposite then the science proves.
    Bacteria can not survive in a high acidic environment and thrives in the lower acitic cans of food.

    ” A high acid food like tomato sauce will not keep as long as a can of beans, for example.”

    • It doesn’t have anything to do with the bacteria, it has to do with the acid impacting the integrity of the metal cans themselves.

      The canning process will kill just about all bacteria anyhow, whether you’re talking about home canning or commercial canning.

  5. Geat tips on the old food topic. The writer is right on with his advise. Just as a highlight,dont miss understand that some foods can kill you if the can has been hurt,miss stored,dented,etc. Any bubbles,off smell,do not taste this item..Food Sickness,sometimes relating in Death, is not worth a couple of dollars..just like he says…Good safe,eat healthy…Thx..ChefTim

  6. Is it OK to dump “off” food into a compost pile? If yes, how long before the compost can be used?

    • As long as it’s not meat or dairy (which you can compost, but should avoid unless you know what you’re doing) then ‘off’ food is fine. Compost is ready when it’s dark, thick, and resembles a nice loamy dirt.

  7. I have a can of jellied cranberry sauce stamped “best if use by 9/13/10. I it not dented and I’ve kept in the cupboard since. Should I throw it out?

  8. While there are many opinions on this subject, I would guess this info is based on a can or two, now and then that ages on the shelf. Buy canned goods and eat them. Buy frozen foods and eat them. Buy fresh foods and eat them. If you’re interested in long-term shelf life, buy freeze dried foods in #10 cans. They have 30+ year shelf life. Buy rice, whole wheat, pinto beans, milk powder, sugar, etc. in #10 cans specified as long-term shelf life. You can also buy chicken, beef, ground beef, shrimp and breakfasts foods as well as fruits and vegetables in these #10 cans. These products are easy to store and very light weight if you need to grab everything and hit the road. Most single portions need approximately 1 cup of water to rehydrate. You can rehydrate them with room temp water or hot water if you have fuel sources. The same foods are also available in single, double and four person serving pouches. An excellent choice is Mountian House brand. I have several years supply on hand. Water is also available in 30+ year shelf life 24oz cans. Are most people’s concerns here for the can or two thats fond in the back of the pantry or for true bulk, long-term storage of canned goods in prepardness?? Interesting subject.

    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t recall where I got the data from, this post is rather old. I do know it was an actual study from a University.

      Yes, freeze dried foods are good for long term storage, but that wasn’t the topic of the article. Both freeze dried and canned foods have their place in your storage.

      Have a great day!

  9. i asked my grocery who also is a prepper. he told me that the can is good for about 5 years past the BEST BY has expired. longer if it is not dented or rusted. I keep my cans in a box that is sealed in a box in a dark cool place…works for me..

  10. Thanks for the info. I considered giving some cans that my Mom purchased years ago to a food drive (I buy very few canned items; fresh or frozen is my way) but don’t want to add insult and injury to someone’s need and/or desparation. Needy folks deserve a great meal, too.

  11. When you have bought canned veggies and fruits to store LONG TERM, as well as some meats (eg. oysters, maybe rabbit and chicken), if the cans are stored in large plastic tubs with snap-on lids, eg. Rubbermaid, and stored in a cool dry place, such as a fairly dry basement, then those foods SHOULD BE GOOD for as long as most of us will be around… If a can is SWOLLEN, toss it… If when OPENED IT has a FOUL ODOR, toss it… it is COMMON SENSE!! Gallon jugs of DISTILLED WATER are GREAT, because that water is closest to being UNCONTAMINATED before it is sealed into the jug – and this is because DISTILLED WATER has been BOILED before the steam is collected and it is then put into the jugs… We can ALL, for the most part, make our our SUPPLY OF SURVIVAL FOOD much more cheaply than going to a commercial outfit… if you can settle on eating “Simple Things,” like Stokley canned “Pork and Beans…” Take care, Rick

  12. Interesting…I read a blog the other day that said that most low acid canned foods can last for 10 plus years as long as they are stored properly IE; cool dry, no severe temp shifts