How Long Does Canned Food Last?

How Long Does Canned Food Last?

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It’s wintertime again, and that means digging into your pantry for some warm hearty meals right out of a can. Whether that might be canned kidney beans to make a spicy chili, a small can of chicken noodle soup to warm you up, or a can of mixed vegetables to complete a meal. I’ve always found that canned foods are a quick solution to the wintertime blues. But when you’re checking out your food storage inventory, you might ask, how long do canned foods last?

When you pick up that can of kidney beans, you notice right away that they went out of date 6 months ago. Grrr! Do you throw it away and try to come up with another meal solution? I think most of us would be surprised at how much food spoilage each family experiences because they didn’t follow proper canned food rotation guidelines and use-by dates.

Storing your canned goods under optimum food storage conditions like a cool dry place such as a basement storage area is always a good idea. The challenge is, many of us don’t have a basement, or even a main floor area available for many canned goods or home-preserved food.

It may not be necessary to discard foods when they reach their use-by date in every case. So, why is there an expiration date on the label if it’s still safe to ingest? Let’s look at how long canned foods can last and understand when it’s still safe to consume them past their expiration dates.

How Long Does Canned Food Last?

How Long Does Canned Food Last?

What Does the Expiration Date Actually Mean?

When a consumer notices a can of soup in their food pantry that has gone past the expiration date, most often they think that it’s no longer safe to be eaten, and decide it should be thrown away.

This really isn’t the case. Truth is, the manufacturer that put the label on the can couldn’t tell for certain that the can of food that you’re holding in your hand will go bad on that exact day since there are so many variables. So what does that date mean?  

Expiration dates don’t necessarily mean that canned food is no longer good, but that the color, texture, or flavor might not be what it once was within that expiration date period.

Vitamins and mineral levels might not be as high as they once were. The quality and nutritional value may not be as ideal, but it is still safe to consume. Expiration dates can generally be viewed as sell-by dates, and not as a timeframe for when food that’s gone bad.  Sometimes the label will say: “best when used by…” which means what it says, it is at its best quality if used by that date.

Related: 10 Things You Can Do With Expired Food

Read More of My Articles  18 Meals In A Can I Recommend

Commercially Canned Foods

Commercially canned foods can be broken up into two categories, highly acidic and low acidic. Foods that are considered high-acid foods have shorter shelf lives, while low-acidic canned foods can be stored for a much longer period of time and are considered long shelf-life commodities. 

High Acidic

Canned foods that contain high amounts of acid only have around a year to a year and a half of shelf life.

High-acidic foods that contain vinegar, pickles, and other pickled foods, salsa, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, as well as canned fruit containing citrus juice, all fall under this category.

Low Acidic

Foods that are low in acid have a much longer shelf life. These are foods that are not tomato-based or citrus-based and cover a much wider range of canned foods.

Low-acidic food includes canned meats, canned fish, soups, and vegetables. On most of these cans, you will notice that the USDA recommends its shelf life right around 2 to 5 years. 

If you properly store your canned foods, they can last even longer than that. There are many cases where properly stored canned foods can extend the life of the food for several years, and we’ll get to them in a second.

Low-acidic canned foods are excellent emergency foods to stock up on. Just make sure you come up with a rotation system, bringing the older cans to the front and using them first.   

Home Food Preservation Canned Food 

There’s a general rule in determining how long homemade canned food is good. It’s best to eat homemade canned foods within a year of canning them.

Consuming it long after a year should still be safe, but the quality and taste of your favorite homemade jams, jellies, peaches, pears, and salsa won’t be as fresh or leave you as satisfied. Of course, following the proper procedures when canning at home is vital and should give you confidence that the vacuum seal on those jars of food has been completed as needed.

True Stories About Expired Canned Foods 

Back in 2002, several cans of canned bread were discovered that had survived World War II. One of the cans was opened and inspected, only to discover that the bread was still safe and quite edible. That’s after going 50 years past the expiration date! 

There was a British couple that got married back in 1956. One of the gifts that they received was a can of chicken.

The man decided that they would wait until their 50th wedding anniversary before he opened it to eat the chicken. When 2004 rolled around, true to his word, he opened the container of chicken and ate it. And no, he didn’t get sick with food poisoning.  

There have even been reports of shipwrecks from a hundred years ago that had canned food on board. Even after that much time had gone by, the food was still edible, and only lost a minimal amount of its original nutrients. Yes, it’s hard to imagine! 

Determining Whether Expired Canned Food Is Safe

Examine the Can

Looking at the outside of an expired can of food can sometimes help you determine if that food is safe to eat or not.

Read More of My Articles  What to Store in Your Pantry for an Emergency

If you notice that the expired can of food is bloated, bulging, or swollen, you shouldn’t eat it. Is there any rust or dents in the can that may have compromised the can’s interior lining? If the can has signs of the contents leaking some liquid, that’s another prompt that the food inside isn’t safe and should be discarded.

Again, throw it away. While you may think it’s just a dent or small leak, it actually increases the likelihood that bacteria may have begun growing inside the can. Better safe than sorry, please discard it.

Open the Can 

If there was nothing noticeably “off” about the can, go ahead and open it and observe the contents. Do you notice an odor, any discoloration, or lower levels of fluid within the container?

It’s also a sign that if the food or fluid spurts out at you, it may no longer be safe to eat. But if you’re still on edge about eating it, like we’ve always heard, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

One additional caution, don’t think it will be ok to eat if you put it in a pot to boil on your stove. Yes, much of the bacteria can be killed through the boiling process, but who knows if it’s totally safe? I wouldn’t take the chance, your health is more important than a can or two of food that’s questionable!

How long does canned food last after being opened?

Whether the food was purchased in a jar or can, or you picked it up fresh from the market, once exposed to the air and light it starts to break down. Any unused portions should be put in a container and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. The type of food it is will determine how long you can store it there, it could be days, or in the case of the freezer, weeks or months.

I try to store my “leftovers” in airtight containers even in the fridge. I’ve found foods tend to last longer when stored that way.

Are pressure canners a good option when doing home canning?

Over the years I’ve done more water bath canning than pressure canning. The key is determining the acidic level of the food to be canned and then choosing the proper method.

If the food to be canned is considered a low-acid food then you need to use a pressure canner. Foods in this category would be most stews, and meats, including poultry and seafood, corn, beans, beans, and potatoes.

On the other hand, foods that are deemed to be high-acid foods would be canned using the water bath method. These foods would be things like most fruits and berries, tomatoes, and pickled foods like vegetables. Note that most varieties of tomatoes are now less acidic than in years past, so you need to add acidity by using lemon juice, some kinds of vinegar, or other citric acid types.

Final Word

Hopefully, this helped answer many questions or concerns that you had about whether you’ll be safe to eat expired canned foods. As you’ve discovered in some of these stories, canned foods can last a long time.

What have you done in the past when you noticed an expired can of food in your pantry? Did you throw it out, or decide to give it a try? Do you know how long canned foods last? I hope this post answered most of your questions. If not, make a comment below and I’ll try to get the answer you need. May God Bless this world, Linda.

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  1. Good stuff. Canned food and dates is often questioned.

    At some point you have to come to grips with how viable and important is that pet though.
    In 2007-8 during the crash I lived in a country place and ended up having to eradicate 3-4 dumped animals a week. Yeah I know it’s horrible and I’m horrible. I took no pleasure in it. The issue is that in the early 80s I lived thru the oilfield crash and saw these dogs pack up. They killed livestock and endangered people especially kids.

    In my military career pets were dumped IF the people were still eating. If the people were hungry the pets got eaten much like Venezuela today.

    If the choice to eat them is made it should be done before they are starving otherwise the nutritional value goes down.

    Folks ask about cats. The smart ones lived the others were eaten by dogs, coyotes or people.

    It often comes down to how much food can you afford to put back or harvest to maintain that dog.

  2. Now I feel better knowing what the low down is on canned food and home canned. Knowing that our home processed food basically has a one year shelf life is not only going to help us plan properly, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Without the ability to grow, raise or acquire more food, we are not going to be able to feed ourselves for years without replenishing the supplies of fresh food.

    Freeze dried foods and canned foods stored at low temperatures to increase their shelf life will get us past the one year barrier, but freeze dried foods cost more and then how much you have will depend on your ability to buy enough for your family to last as long as you desire. It’s a great backup and good idea to have a pantry full of food that can last 15 to 25 years.

    For long term events, I think we all have to really think about growing some of our own food; sprouts, container gardens, a small plot and some small livestock if possible. I’m so glad you’re focusing on these subjects because the more I learn the better I feel about my ability to prepare.

    1. Hi Frank, I ordered some boxes called Earthboxes. I will be testing them on growing lettuce and spinach inside my home and outside. Here’s the deal, there are so many people who only need to grow enough food for one or two people. We also need to know how to preserve what we grow. I’m writing dozens of posts on dehydrating fruits and vegetables. Then making powders out of them. We can do this, Frank, one step at a time. Linda

  3. Linda, I have eaten many cans that were past the expiration. Some were good, a few made me sick. But I was raised by parents from the depression era and world war 2 , where they almost starved. They raised us to never throw away anything. So I only throw canned foods away if they are bulged or leaking.

  4. Linda ~
    Good post. But, I would question the use of “expiration date”! The cans and jars of things I purchase have “best if used by” date. No where on the cans does it say “expiration date”. The “best by” date will depend on storage condition so that does factor in to how long the canned goods will last. If stored in a dry, even temperature area, they may well last much longer than the “best by” date. If not, then I would only judge the safety of the product by look and smell. If the can looks damages, i.e. rusted, bulging, etc., then out it goes. If it looks good on the outside, and then it smells bad when opened, out it goes. If all things look good and smells good, I would try a taste. If it tastes ok, then I would eat it. If not, out it goes. Jars are another situation. We can easily see the product and can test that the jar is still sealed or not. If it is not sealed, out it goes. If it is sealed, again, smell and taste test first.

    So, I purchased some cans of beans yesterday that have a “best by” date of 2022 and 2023. That means, if I don’t eat them soon, I can store them for some time. The vitamin/mineral content should still be good up to those dates. That being said, these things are going to be eaten in the next few months!!

    1. Hi Leanne, you and I grew up when there were no best by or expiration dates on canned goods, right? We just ate what was in the cans. As I think back now, I don’t think my mother could store that many cans so we would have easily eaten every can in our pantry. The only time I worry about canned goods is if they are tomato-based. But I know I have eaten many cans with or without dates. Life is good, Linda

  5. People have become frightened of using anything past it’s “expiration date”. Expiration dates have been put on everything now. It’s a gimmick to get you to replace the product. Everything from band-aids, 2×2 gauze to bullet proof vests now have “expiration dates”.
    That includes most antibiotics. My doctor told me this in the first place long ago. The US
    Air Force has been using antibiotics that are 20 to 25 years old with no issues in potency. The only one you do have an issue with is the Tetracycline family of antibiotics.
    Oh, this world has become one of greed and misinformation. I fear for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren

    1. Hi Darrell, great comment! My doctor told me the antibiotics will be good way beyond the expiration dates. It really is sad BIG Pharma is so greedy. I totally agree with your last paragraph. Our Forefathers must be rolling over in their graves. Linda

  6. I read the children’s book, Ember, and was amazed that in the story, the canned goods lasted over 100 years. Since then, I think it superfluous that food banks won’t take canned goods beyond the best by date!

    1. Hi Estina, it’s interesting that you would say that because years and years ago there were no dates. It makes me laugh in a small way because when I was young there were no dates and we ate everything. I’m not saying it was right or wrong, but what changed? Who made the decision about the date. I guess the government, not sure. We all eat some canned goods that are expired. I’m not in charge of the food banks so I can’t worry about it. Linda

  7. When I was young (in the 50 s)I was told to listen for the hiss then give it the smell test, if all was good you were to dump it out and check the inside of the can for rust or discoloration. If all was good everything was still heated till boiling for at least 5 min.. Soups and veggies or such, not fruit and canned milk or the like.

  8. I did a writeup for Survivalblog several years ago, based on cans, matches, and other goods that had been dumped in a storage unit for ten years. Most of the cans were intact and edible, though what quality of nutrition was inside is unknown.

    1. Hi Michael, that’s good to know. When I was growing up there were no expiration dates. LOL! I bet the nutrition was questionable but it would fill the belly. Ten years, thanks for commenting, I love it! Linda

  9. I just found this archive:

    For instance, a fascinating study published in the Journal of Food Science reported on canned food that was analyzed from the Steamboat Bertrand, which sank over 100 years before, in 1865. The findings? National Food Processors Association (NFPA) chemists detected no microbial growth. Furthermore, they determined that the foods were as safe to eat as when they had been canned over 100 years earlier.

    The chemists added that while significant amounts of vitamins C and A were lost, protein levels remained high, and all calcium values “were comparable to today’s products.”

    1. Hi Michael, I took 12 weeks’ worth of classes to receive my Master Canning and Preserving Certificate. I had been canning my own food for over 50 years but wanted to learn all the new techniques. It makes me wonder how they “canned” food in 1865. This article is so interesting to me. Thank you for sharing. I love hearing this, Linda

  10. Linda, great article! Over Thanksgiving, I wanted to make a couple pumpkin pies for home, tho I was only bringing apple pies for family gathering. Egads! I was Out of evaporated milk! Dug around in cupboard as I was sure I’d seen a couple of eagle brand sweetened condensed milk cans. The best used by date was from 4 yrs ago! Figured I’d try to use…I removed entire top of can: the milk was much darker but no smell, tasted fine. I added some water to dilute, made my pie mix. Best pumpkin pie I’ve tasted! So, I guess in this case, the date meant nothing. Kind of funny, but I brought home a few pieces of deli-made pumpkin pie from family party. Yes, refrigerated all pies over weekend. Went off to work out of town the following Monday, when my kids left all the pies on counter. The store ones had mold within a day, mine was fine even after 3 days of no refrigeration. Go figure!

  11. This is the best news. People really needs to read each one. WONDERFUL to fine how long canned foods good for. Maybe you should put this in a book or in every store as I know LADYS that put their cans in the tracts if it outdates. Food that other people needs and could eat. Cost is high and some don’t the money to buy food.

    1. Hi Lola, I think we have to use our own judgment these days as to expired cans of food. I totally agree that the cost of food is high and people cannot afford to buy as much food these days! Linda

  12. Great article Linda. I’m so anal about rotating my pantry! It’s a former bedroom and FULL. But…last week I discovered a jar of venison that I canned in 2017!! Opened it, it hissed, smelled fine – we had venison stew that night!! Not recommended but hey, with grocery prices the way they are…

    1. Hi Beth, I would have used it! I have never canned venison only chicken and ground beef. I do not recommend ground beef. LOL! I have relatives that are really good hunters and they eat venison and can it as well! I learned at my Master Canning and Preserving class they recommend one year. I get it. They must be cautious. I used to eat canned peaches that had to have been 4 years old! Not every year but we would miss that jar in the back, it’s all good! Linda

  13. I home-can 100-200 jars per year and found this to be an excellent article. But I’m puzzled on one point. With home canning, tomatoes are high-acid and may be hot-water-bath canned whereas string beans are low-acid and require pressure canning. (I have tried more than once, for example, to hot-water-bath can string beans and have always failed. The jars don’t seal.) My conclusion is that high-acid food is easier to can and, implicitly, has longer shelf life. But this article states, in regard to commercially canned food, that: “Foods that are low in acid have a much longer shelf life.” Before reading this, I would have bet money that high-acid foods had longer shelf life. Color me confused. Sorry Linda.

    1. HI Ron, great comment, my friend. When I took my Master Canner Preserving classes I learned how our food has changed and why we have to can food a little now I’m 73 and back 50 years ago all we added was salt to the fresh tomatoes when we canned them. Now, most tomatoes are GMO and need lemon juice or citric acid added to make them safe to can. I have always pressured canned my green beans but that’s how I learned when I was younger at the state extension service. I still do today. Tomatoes are a fruit but need lemon juice or citric acid to make them safe to water bath can them. I bet you can remember getting cankers from eating too many tomatoes 50 years ago…LOL! Food has changed. Linda

  14. Hi Linda. Thank you so much for your response. But my bewilderment persists . . .

    “Low-acid canned foods generally have a shelf-life of 2 to 5 years, whereas high-acid foods have a shelf-life of only 12 to 18 months.”

    BUT “Once canned food is opened ….. high-acid foods will last 5 to 7 days in the fridge, while low-acid foods will last 3 to 5 days.”

    And the beat goes on.

    1. Hi Ron, it’s like that blog copied exactly what I wrote. Interesting. I’m not sure if the owner is a Master Canner or not. Yes, and the beat goes on. The USDA states home canned food is good for one year. We have to use our own judgment as to our own beliefs. When in doubt, throw it out. Linda

  15. Literally just three days ago I threw out 21 cans of SPAM with expires from 2013-2016. One of the 2013’s was bulging. Sometimes you have to rip off the band aid and throw out the old stuff.

    1. Hi Tom, great comment, it’s like having a home or car insurance policy. We may have to use it if we don’t we know we have it. It’s okay to toss old food. Life is still good. Linda

  16. I generally shop in quantities that line up…. ie….. 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts + 2 cans cream of Chicken soup + 2 cans broccoli cheese soup + 1 1/2 cup shredded cheese + 1 large bag broccoli florets + 4 cups rice = 6 servings for now and 6 for the freezer. So if I find 24 chicken breasts on sale, I add the coordinate items to my list. That way I try to avoid the one or two lonely cans forgotten. Sometimes it works, but not always. Like some orange juice that I foolishly forgot, until it turned brown….yuck……

  17. I won’t get in a debate, but I like diced German sausage cooked in olive oil and then I add a can of corn and heat till really blended for the sausage taste.
    I am using 2012 and 2013 BB dated cans, different manufacturers, and so far, all is well.
    Just sausage and corn..It’s a frugal meal….add cornbread or biscuits.

    1. HI Jay, no. debate here, we all use stuff that may be expired. Now I want to make cornbread and biscuits! Every family should know how to make biscuits and cornbread! Love this! Linda

  18. I literally have so many canned goods in our pantry. I don’t even remember buying most of them. Isn’t that funny? LOL

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