Canned Food Shelf Life: Read This Before You Throw It Out

Canned Food Shelf Life: Read This Before You Throw It Out
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Canned Food Shelf Life (c)Canned Food Shelf Life – Is It Really Safe One Day And Then Bad The Next?

Are you getting ready to throw out that can of green beans just because it’s a week past its “best by” date?

Maybe you should. Why chance eating something that could make you sick? If the label says it’s past its prime then IT’S EXPIRED. Right?

In normal times, that’s fine. I won’t challenge that logic. It’s hard to argue taking extra risks if the upside will only amount to a couple of dollars saved. I’m right there with ya.

But what about when times are not normal? Would you be so quick to toss your “expired” can of green beans if food was as scarce as water in a desert?

After SHTF, those “best by” date guidelines won’t matter. Trust me, extreme hunger will blur those lines.

What if that can of “past its prime” green beans was the only food you came across for 3 days. What if that same can of green beans meant food for your starving family?

You’ll still toss that green bean can in the trash, but it will be entirely empty of all its delicious contents. You will eat it and it will taste amazing.

And what about the chance of getting sick? There’s still that risk, but depending upon several factors, that risk is way overstated.

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Measuring Ruler

Are Best By Dates An Exact Science?

The simple answer is NO. How can they be?

There are too many variables outside of a food manufacturer’s control to come up with a reliable expiration date science.

The 2 main variables that affect canned food’s storage shelf life are:

1 – Temperature exposure

Extremely high temperatures will compromise most foods. Unless you are turning grapes into raisins or actually cooking your food for consumption, you don’t want to your store canned goods in high heat environments.

What’s worse is large temperature variations. Food left in high temperatures, then low temperatures, and then back to high temperatures, its shelf life will be compromised. Unheated, uninsulated garages or attics = terrible storage locations.

2 – Can integrity

The second variable to watch out for is can damage. If a can was dropped, crushed, or dented in any way then the integrity of the can comes into question. Damaged cans may have seal issues.

If a can is damaged then the odds go up significantly of air penetrating the can. Organic matter (food) exposed to air will tend to mold. Moldy food is bad and can make you sick.

Of these two variables, the food manufacturer can only really control the second one. And only before it ships. Once it’s shipped from the canning factory, they no longer control this variable either.

For instance:

  • A forklift could puncture the can during loading.
  • Shifting pallets often crush the cans on trailers in traffic.
  • A 17-year-old stock boy could accidently drop it when distracted by a cute girl from his class saying “Hi”.
  • Your toddler might decide to toss it out of your grocery cart, just for fun.

These are variables that food manufacturers have no way to control.

So if you were in the same shoes as the food manufacturer and you’d be held responsible (i.e. sued) for someone getting sick on your food after the “best by” date, would you choose a conservative or liberal label date?

Would you err on the side of a shorter date? Or would you err on the side of a longer one?

Yeah, exactly, you would err heavily on the side of a shorter date. The shorter the better.

Plus, by erring on the side of a shorter date the food manufacturers are helping to sell more.

That’s the definition of a Win/Win (for them).

How’s that? If people follow their “expiration” dates and those dates are short (a couple of years) then people will either:

1) Consume the product faster


2) Toss out the old stuff and buy new

Either way, it will equal more sales of their product.

Let’s image someone purchases their canned food product and the label said it was good for 20 years. A lot of people would let that sit on their shelf for a very long time. If enough people did that, then the food manufacturers are hurting their repeat sales volumes.

Another clue that canned food shelf life dates are arbitrary suggestions is that they now don’t even say “Expiration Date”. Nowadays the majority of cans state “Best By” or “Best If Used By”.

This is a dead giveaway of the canned food expiration date hoax.

Of course, fresher food is always better. No one is arguing that fact. However, not being “best” and not being consumable are miles apart.

Old Ship Wreck Underwater

How About Some Proof From The Past

Did you know that the excavation of canned goods over 100 years old, proved to be completely safe to eat?

In 1865, a steamboat loaded with canned provisions left port for the mining camps in Montana. Unfortunately, it had too many provisions and the weight of the vessel caused it to sink early on in its journey.

It sat at the bottom of the Missouri River for nearly a century. Among the provisions were cans of plum tomatoes, mixed vegetables, peaches, oysters, and honey.

In 1974, several scientists at the NFPA checked the content of the cans. They found that the products still had significant nutritional value and zero microbial growth.

In fact, the chemists found that these canned goods were just as safe to eat in 1974 as they were to eat 100 years earlier.

OK so now you know expiration dates are essentially meaningless when it comes to canned food. Does that mean canned food can never go bad? No…they definitely can.

You must learn how to tell the difference between canned foods that safe to consume and those that are not.

Carefully Checking The Expiration Dates On Canned Goods At The Time Of Purchase

If you are stockpiling food for SHTF, then it is important to know which canned foods give you the most bang for your buck.

If you are going to invest in canned goods then it is best to check the “best by” dates when purchasing. As you might with a loaf of bread or gallon of milk. Choose the cans from the back of the grocery store shelves that have the very furthest out “best by” dates.

This doesn’t mean that you have to discard them the day they expire. It’s just selecting the newest and freshest product available at that time of purchase.

Canned Tuna

What Are Some Of The Longest Shelf Life Foods?

When preparing for long-term survival, you’ll want to choose the longest shelf life foods. In general, canned meat shelf life tends to be the longest. Meats such as beef stew, Spam, tuna fish, etc. tend to have quite long shelf lives.

In the canned food category, canned meat tends to last the longest. Meats such as beef stew, Spam, tuna fish, etc. tend to have quite long shelf lives.

I highly recommend the Mountain House #10 can series. Now a #10 can is a larger can for long term bulk storage purposes. A #10 can on average holds about 109 oz. So these cans are larger than you regular grocery store #2 can.

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But remember canned food shelf life has as much to do with how you store it, as which foods you choose to buy. For example, you can significantly increase the canned food shelf life of soup by storing it correctly.

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Canned Food Shelf Life Storage

Canned Goods Storage Tips

To prolong your canned food shelf life, focus on storage techniques. Keeping any food fresh past their typical shelf life depends on the conditions in which you keep these emergency food items stored.

1. To begin with, never buy the dented cans.

Sure, many people say there’s no issue to buy cans with dents. This is true if consumed quickly but if you’re stockpiling food goods, a dented can is a liability.

Don’t settle for cans or jars lids that have even minor damage. Cans with damage will lead to premature bacterial growth over time. This is often more important than the expiration dates label.

2. Canned food shelf life can be significantly affected by moisture.

You want to control the humidity in your storage environment. Dry foods can pick up moisture that can lead to mold and bacterial growth. Moisture can also lead to the breakdown of packaging containers, such as aluminum or tin cans.

As these containers oxidize and rust, they can affect canned food shelf life.

3. Mid-range temperatures are best to improve canned goods shelf life.

Shoot for temperatures ranging from about 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

A study conducted by Brigham Young on wheat over the long term showed that wheat kept in a cool storage, such as a basement, would be edible for years.

Wheat stored in a hot environment such as an attic would only be acceptable for consumption for five years. On the flip side, canned food shelf life can be significantly decreased if items become frozen even if just for a short period.

4. The shelf life of canned food can also be negatively affected by direct sunlight.

While you may enjoy laying in the sun and baking, your canned goods won’t take very kindly to this process. Heat from direct sunlight will speed up the deterioration of the cans and the contents as well.

Expiration Date

Canned Goods Expiration Dates

Canned food expiration dates don’t mean you have to throw the food out. Yet they can serve as a guideline to help you rotate your usage of these products.

They can also serve to let you know which products last longer than others. Using them simply as a reference can be helpful, as long as they are not taken too seriously.

You will not die if your green beans are a month or even a year past their expiration date if you are storing your canned goods properly to ensure that these foods last as long as possible. But how do you know if the canned goods on your shelf are still safe to consume years past the expiration date?

There are some tell-tale signs if the shelf life of your canned food has truly passed.

The following are some signs that the food in those cans may become contaminated.

1. Don’t just look at the expiration dates on canned food.

Look at the cans themselves. Do they have dents, rust, or are they bulging?

These are signs that the food items contained in them have become compromised.

Also, the shelf life of canned food can be compromised in jars that have signs of corrosion on the lid and liquid seeping under the lid of the jar. You should discard jars with this appearance.

2. The nose really does know.

Smell is a helpful indicator of rotten food. So if you’re uncertain about the shelf life of canned soup, for instance, simply open it up and take a big whiff.

A bad odor will serve as a good indicator and will let you know in most cases if the contents of the can are bad.

3. A few more signs to look out for.

Discoloration. Although by itself this might not be anything to fear, with any other signs of contamination present, it’s best to discard this food.

Don’t consume eggs that float in water.

Also, any can or jar that spurts liquid upon opening is a good sign that the food is bad.

Mold is another indicator that the food has spoiled.

The Bottom Line On The Food Expiration Date Myth

It is important to realize that the dates on canned goods simply don’t matter.

What really matters is what is in the can. If you store canned goods in ideal conditions and take good care of it, they can live well past the expiration on the can.

So when you ask yourself, “what is the shelf life of canned food?”

Keep in mind that the food is fine to eat for years to come. Using some basic common sense tips can go a long way in helping to feed your family through the tough times.

If you have concerns about the quality of the contents of a can of food you are about to consume then err on the side of caution.

It is still better to be safe than sorry.

But don’t hesitate to use your five senses to assess the shelf life of canned food. This is a better way to tell if canned foods are still safe to eat than any arbitrary date printed on the packaging.

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Photo Credits: Top / Ruler / Ship Wreck / Date / Cans


  1. Mr Mc Carthy says

    I know that “Sell By Dates” are just a big con to convince the buyer to buy more, but, it seems to work.
    I am amazed when I see people in there seventy’s and plus, checking these dates, when we were young, there was no such thing, we looked, had a sniff, and either threw it out or eat it.
    I do the same now.
    Big business will not be happy if this gets large coverage.

  2. Jacki Olson says

    Good info…makes sense. Had only one case of food poisoning in my life of 70 years. A Cub roasted chicken. Really got sick, thought it was the flu. Nothing I tried helped tho that would have treated the flu.
    Three days later after having gone through pooping and vomiting everything out, including water, I took 5 charcoal capsules. They worked! Immediately! Cured! What a relief!
    Took 5 more to secure my gut…wonderful!

    • Margaret says

      I’d LOVE to know more about the ‘Charcoal Capsule’s” worth. I never heard this. If you’re still checking out this site, please advise.

      • Don says

        You can buy charcoal caps or just buy it in bulk. Vita cost or health food stores… It’s great to have around for a number of issues – but mostly poisons/toxins.

      • says

        You can also find them in most pharmacy stores. They’re useful if you’re feeling especially gassy, or if you have diarrhea (more often than not, that’s a mild form of food poisoning).

  3. Sam Monfire says

    Overall a good article and informative. However, the smell test is false. Food born pathogens do not smell. The bacteria that smells is not the bacteria that makes you sick or kills you. Other than that nice article.

  4. Ray Davies says

    I came across a report of someone opening a can and eating it. They said it was Ok to eat. When they checked the label it showed it was made 32 years earlier. So I guess if the can is in tacked and not deformed you can presume the contents are OK forever and a day!

  5. Turtle says

    And all the folks that are just stocking 20 year shelf life freeze dried food (that is 10x more expensive) just did a face palm when they realized how much cash they could have saved to buy ammo. LOL.
    Freeze dried is fine for light weight bug out situations, That’s what I use mine for. But it shouldn’t be your bulk storage foods unless you just have money to burn.
    Great article. I still remember helping my grandma in the kitchen & her sending me to the storage panty to get can food out of their homemade FIFO wall rack. They had hundreds of cans of everything in that sucker. It was huge.

  6. J. Hulce says

    I have some canned meats (turkey and beef) that was canned by my church in a professional canning environment. However, I cannot remember when I purchased these items and they have no date on them whatsoever. I have in the past used a can or two when nothing else was available, no one got sick (that I’m aware of), however, the smell and taste of the product seemed a little metallic, like the can. Is this an indication that I should throw these items out?

    • Just In Case Jack says

      While the metallic taste is off-putting, by itself it won’t make you sick. You can try to remove that metallic taste from the food to see if it helps.

      I personally wouldn’t toss out my canned food due to a slight metallic taste. If our society ever encounters a real prolonged survival situation, you’ll eat those canned goods without a second thought about it. Starvation quickly fixes picky eaters.

    • MKP says

      1st, great article, I kept extra food in our makeshift pantry in the garage. Summers get to be 117°f outside, While this part of the garage is partially under ground, I dont think it’s that hot, but it’s still too warm for people & food is think. My husband went to get something one day, and “Big Ben” was staring back at him! I don’t want rats, mice snakes, scorpions, or any other creepy crawlers close to my food even if it is canned goods! We are in the process of moving food inside and seldom used stoneware, spare dishes, & entertaining pieces outside. After seeing what we have, some of new canned goods will be donated, go in a 2nd refrigerator, and we’ll eat old stuff.

      Every one loves my tuna or chicken salad sandwiches. They are nothing special. my meats are canned from Costco. BUT my prep work might help with your metallic fast. My husband was a 3rd generation painter by trade. He had what looked to be a giant tea
      strainer in his garage. He’d put some fine mesh stuff over it and use it to strain paint. I made him get me one yrs ago. Before I use any canned meat or beans, I rinse them well in that strainer.

      The tuna is albacore and chicken is breast meat; both are packed in water. However, both have some gel-like substance coating the meat that grosses me out. I go thru the meat, rinsing under water, in the strainer as if I were going thru dried beans or peas.

      The tuna also has a strong tuna smell when it first comes out of the can. After I’ve washed it well enough, that strong smell seems to go down the drain with the other stuff. It may be worth a try for you.

  7. Dale H. Malquist says

    When I was in the Navy during the Cuban missile crisis our ship ran out of food. They had to get the emergency rations out of the life rafts. The meat was canned in 1941 or 42 and was edible.

  8. Lt. Col. Bill Miller, Ret. says

    Ha Dale. Had the same experience in 1959 drawing supplies for the 10o 1st Armored Division (Army) Iin Breckenridge, Ky. The eggs were dated 1942. Scrambled and delicious.

  9. pam says

    I have a bunch of canned goods that have been in a storage building fir 2 years. I hate to throw them out. I live in Alabama. ..the temp here go up to 100 or so in summer and only a few times of freezing during winter. I am scared that the up and down temp have contaminated them .I would be soooo upset if someone got sick bevause I couldn’t for sure determine if it was ok. Do yall think they are ok??

    • Just In Case Jack says

      Hey Pam,

      I have no way of knowing without seeing or smelling it myself. If I were you, I’d crack open a can or two and investigate. If it smells bad, that’s a dead giveaway that it’s gone bad. If it smells fine, then dump it out and look. If all still looked good, then I’d taste it (a small sample). If that was ok, then I’d eat the rest of it.

      Again, that’s just what I would do. You should decide if you want to take the risk or not. Cans that have been exposed to cyclical extreme temperatures should be considered suspect.

  10. Barb says

    I opened a can of Aldi’s lima beans yesterday. No expiration date (gobeldygook). It was stored with some cans dated 2013/2014. It smelled fine and tasted okay, but it had bubbles. I rinsed it and it still had bubbles, so I tossed them. Opinion….

  11. says

    This article was very informative. I have canned dehydrated food with do experation date. After reading this i will keep them. They are over 20 years old now. Thanks

  12. Glen says

    My grandmother home-canned everything available in her New England town, labeling the year under the glass-top wire bail. After her passing in 1971 we found well over a thousand canning jars in the cellar, dating back to 1932. Other than beans and corn over 5 or so years old, our large family enjoyed her mincemeat, maple syrup, tomatoes, rhubarb, various fruits and sauces, etc for at least 5 years. To my recollection, no one became ill as we used due caution and did discard much of the oldest and suspect-looking stuff.

  13. Cathy Siebert says

    I have a large plastic bottle of Ragu spaghetti sauce, itis dated July 21 15, has been in our pantry for all that time. It is a little darker then new, but the lid is not popped. Should I use it or not? Thanks

    • Just In Case Jack says

      I can’t give absolute advice without examining it for myself.

      With that said, I would open it up, smell it, dump it into a bowl and examine it visually, take a small taste. If all seemed fine, I’d eat it. But you might not want to take the same risk as me. It’s ultimately your call.

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