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, canned foods are a quick solution to the wintertime blues. 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When you pick up that can of kidney beans, you notice right away that they went out of date 6 months ago.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?

Not necessarily. So, why is there an expiration date on the label if it’s still safe to ingest? Let’s take a look at how long canned foods can last, and knowing when it’s still safe to consume canned foods past their expiration dates.  

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 company 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. So what does that date mean?  

Expiration dates do not 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 minerals 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 should be viewed as a sell-by date, and not as food that’s gone bad.  Sometimes the label will say: “best when used by…” which means what it says, it is at its best if used by that date.

Commercially Canned Foods

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

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, 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 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 decades, and we’ll get to them in a second.

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

Homemade 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 salsa won’t be as fresh or leave you as satisfied.

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 and ate. When 2004 rolled around, true to his word, he opened the container of chicken and ate it. And no, he did not get sick.  

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. 

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.

If you notice that the expired can of food is bloated or swollen, you should not eat it. Is there any rust or dents in the can that may have compromised the can’s interior lining?

Again, throw it away. While you may think it’s just a dent, 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, that it may no longer be safe to eat. But if you’re still on the edge about eating it, like we’ve always heard, “when in doubt, throw it out.” 

Final Word

Hopefully, this helped answer any 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? May God Bless this world, Linda.

Canned Foods I Recommend

20 thoughts on “How Long Does Canned Food Last?

  • December 5, 2019 at 8:00 am
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    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.

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    • December 5, 2019 at 8:05 am
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      Hi Matt, oh how I would love to hear you speak about your life experiences. You have lived through so many experiences. Great comment, Linda

      Reply
  • December 5, 2019 at 8:41 am
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    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.

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    • December 5, 2019 at 10:13 am
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      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

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  • December 5, 2019 at 8:52 am
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    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.

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    • December 5, 2019 at 10:14 am
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      Hi Jmar, I was raised the same way. Bulging and leaking cans are dangerous. Stay safe, Linda

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  • December 5, 2019 at 10:44 am
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    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!!

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    • December 5, 2019 at 11:52 am
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      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

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  • December 5, 2019 at 11:03 am
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    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

    Reply
    • December 5, 2019 at 11:55 am
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      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

      Reply
  • December 5, 2019 at 9:03 pm
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    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!

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    • December 5, 2019 at 9:10 pm
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      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

      Reply
  • December 15, 2019 at 1:53 am
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    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.

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    • December 15, 2019 at 7:03 am
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      Hi rlh, when I was growing up we ate whatever ever was in the pantry. There were no dates, my mom did the smell test as well. Great comment, Linda

      Reply
  • December 15, 2019 at 9:10 am
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    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.

    Reply
    • December 15, 2019 at 9:19 am
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      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

      Reply
  • December 15, 2019 at 9:34 am
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    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.”

    Reply
    • December 15, 2019 at 9:52 am
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      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

      Reply
  • December 16, 2019 at 9:10 am
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    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!

    Reply
    • December 16, 2019 at 9:27 am
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      Hi Wendy, oh my gosh, best comment ever!! We cook from scratch we can change out any ingredient! Love it! The mold, wow!!!! Linda

      Reply

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