canned foods in the grocery store

Canned Food Shelf Life: Does the Expiration Date Matter?

In an age when preparedness and self-sufficiency are paramount, understanding the longevity and safety of our food supplies is crucial. Among the various types of preserved food, canned food holds a unique place due to its widespread usage and long shelf life.

One question often arises among individuals preparing for long-term food storage: “How long does canned food really last after its expiration date?”

This article aims to provide an in-depth analysis of this pertinent topic.

Canned Food Expiration Dates: Key Facts to Know

a person loads canned food into a box

The longevity of canned foods beyond their labeled expiration dates is a subject that is often surrounded by confusion and misinformation. In truth, the “best by” or “sell by” date on canned food is not a definitive expiry date, but rather an indicator of the product’s peak quality as determined by the manufacturer [1]

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The “best by” date is about quality assurance. The manufacturers provide these dates to guarantee optimal taste, texture, and nutritional value. After the indicated date, the food inside the can is not necessarily dangerous to eat, but it may not be at its best [2].

However, this doesn’t mean that canned food is invulnerable to spoilage. The durability of canned goods beyond their “best by” dates depends on several factors, including the type of food, the canning process, the quality of the can, and the conditions in which it is stored [3].

Typically, canned foods with high acidity, like tomatoes and citrus fruits, have a shorter shelf life, lasting around 12 to 18 months past their printed dates. On the other hand, low-acid canned foods such as meats, poultry, fish, and most vegetables can last 2 to 5 years beyond their “best by” dates, assuming proper storage conditions [4].

Speaking of storage conditions, these can significantly affect the shelf life of canned goods. Optimal storage conditions involve a cool, dry place with a stable temperature, ideally around 50°F to 70°F [3].

Exposure to high temperatures, especially above 75°F, or freezing temperatures, can compromise the can’s integrity and the food’s shelf life [2]

In addition to this, always be aware of the signs of spoilage before consuming canned goods. The USDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provide clear guidelines on this. Spoilage signs include bulging or leaking cans, severe dents especially on the seams, rusting, and off odors [5]. In case of such indications, it’s always safer to discard the can.

Ultimately, understanding canned food expiration dates and storage principles is essential for maintaining the safety and quality of your food supply, whether for daily use or emergency preparedness.

Canned Foods: Are They Really Safe to Eat for Decades? What the Research Says

he question of whether canned foods can indeed last for decades is one that many preppers, survivalists, and even everyday consumers often ponder. The answer to this question, according to research, is both yes and no, depending on various factors.To begin with, let’s consider a piece of compelling evidence that supports the argument.

A study conducted by the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) in the United States found canned foods over 100 years old in a shipwreck [6]. The study showed that the canned foods had maintained their safety and nutrient levels, although their appearance and smell had deteriorated over time.

This may sound like an endorsement for the idea that canned foods can last indefinitely. However, a few key considerations must be made.

Firstly, the cans from a century ago were quite different from the cans used today, both in terms of materials and canning methods [7].

Therefore, the results of this study might not be completely applicable to modern canned goods.Secondly, while the foods in the study were safe to eat, their quality had significantly degraded. This raises the question of whether one would want to rely on such food, even in an emergency situation.

Additionally, research shows that the shelf life of canned goods depends largely on the type of food and how it’s stored. Foods with high acidity, like tomatoes and citrus fruits, can degrade faster due to the corrosive nature of the acids. On the other hand, low-acid foods like meats and vegetables can potentially last longer.Storage conditions also significantly impact canned food longevity. The USDA recommends storing canned goods at a constant temperature below 75°F (24°C) and above freezing [8].

Exposure to high temperatures, moisture, or freezing conditions can compromise the can and the food inside [9].So, while it is technically possible for canned foods to remain safe for decades under ideal conditions, it’s crucial to consider their diminished quality and potential risk factors.

A more practical approach would be to follow the guideline of consuming canned goods within 2 to 5 years past their “best by” date, and always inspecting cans for signs of spoilage before consumption [10].

When NOT to Eat Expired Canned Foods

some canned food that is damaged

Despite the surprising longevity of canned foods, there are definitive circumstances when consuming an expired canned product should be avoided entirely, no matter how long it’s been since the “best by” date. Below are some scenarios where caution is strongly advised.

1. Damaged or Compromised Cans

Any visible damage to a can is a red flag. This includes cans that are leaking, bulging, or severely dented, especially along the seams. Such defects can compromise the vacuum seal and allow air and bacteria to enter, leading to spoilage.

2. Rusting

Rust on a can may not only cause pinholes, enabling the entry of bacteria, but can also react with the food inside, especially if it is acidic. This can lead to metallic tastes and potential health risks.

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3. Presence of Botulism

One of the biggest risks associated with spoiled canned goods is Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that produces the botulism toxin. Botulism is a potentially fatal illness, and its toxin can survive in food that is not properly canned, jarred, or preserved.

While commercial canning methods are usually very safe, the risk increases with home-canned products, especially if the canning process is not followed accurately. If a can is bulging or the food inside is foamy or has a bad smell upon opening, these could be signs of botulism, and the food should not be consumed.

4. Improper Storage Conditions

If the cans have been stored in less than ideal conditions, such as in extreme temperatures (either freezing or above 75°F) or in damp areas leading to rusting, the food inside may have gone bad.

5. Unknown or Excessive Age

While canned goods can last for years past their “best by” dates, the quality degrades over time. If the age of the canned goods is unknown, or if they’re more than five years past their “best by” dates, it may be best to err on the side of caution and avoid consumption.

In any of these cases, it’s essential to follow the adage, “When in doubt, throw it out.” The risk of foodborne illnesses is not worth the potential benefit of consuming expired canned goods.

Interior Signs a Can of Food Has Gone Bad

Even if a can appears to be in good condition on the outside, there are still potential signs of spoilage that can only be detected once the can is opened. It’s important to inspect the food closely before consuming it, as some of these signs may indicate the presence of harmful bacteria or toxins.

Here are some interior signs that a can of food has gone bad:

1. Off-Odors

One of the most immediate and recognizable signs of spoiled canned food is an off-odor. This can vary depending on the type of food, but any smell that is off-putting or drastically different from the expected smell can be a warning sign. If you notice a sour, putrid, or otherwise unpleasant smell when you open a can, it’s safest to discard the contents without tasting them.

2. Unusual Colors or Textures

Changes in color or texture can also indicate spoilage. This could be a darkening or fading of the food’s natural color, or a change in texture, such as meat becoming excessively soft or vegetables becoming mushy.

3. Mold or Fungus

The presence of mold or fungus is a clear sign of spoilage. This can appear as fuzzy spots of various colors, or a slimy film on the surface of the food. In canned goods, this is a sign that the vacuum seal has been compromised and bacteria or fungi have been able to grow.

4. Gas Release or Foamy Liquid

When you open a can, there should be no significant release of gas, and the liquid inside should not be foamy. Either of these signs could indicate the presence of bacteria, including the potentially deadly Clostridium botulinum, which produces gas as it grows.

5. Off-Taste

While it’s not advisable to taste food that shows any of the above signs of spoilage, if a canned good looks and smells normal but then tastes off, it’s best to stop eating it. An off-taste can be another sign that the food has spoiled.

Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you have any doubt about the safety of a canned food item, don’t eat it.

Rotating Your Canned Foods for Long-Term Storage

Proper rotation of your canned food supply is an essential part of long-term storage and emergency preparedness. By carefully managing your inventory, you can ensure your canned goods are consumed while their nutritional content is still at its highest and before there’s any risk of spoilage. Here’s how to effectively rotate your canned foods:

1. First In, First Out (FIFO):

The First In, First Out method, commonly known as FIFO, is the cornerstone of food rotation. This principle entails using the oldest cans first and adding new cans to the back of your storage.

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Essentially, the first foods you put into storage should be the first ones you take out to use. This practice ensures that no food item remains in storage past its optimal use period and prevents waste due to spoilage.

2. Regular Inspections

Make it a routine to inspect your canned goods regularly. Check for any signs of damage or spoilage such as rust, leaks, bulges, or deep dents. If you find any damaged cans, discard them properly. Never taste food from a suspect can to determine its safety.

3. Label Each Can

Always mark each can with the date of purchase using a permanent marker. This simple act makes it easier to track the age of your canned foods and follow the FIFO principle. You may also want to note the “best by” date for quick reference.

4. Organize By Type and Date

Keep your storage area well organized. Group similar items together and arrange them by date. This will not only simplify meal preparation but also make it easier to spot any cans that need to be used soon.

5. Regularly Use and Replace

Incorporate canned goods into your regular meals. This allows you to continually rotate your supply, ensuring that nothing gets too old. Each time you use a can, make a note to replace it on your next shopping trip.

6. Store Appropriately

Even the best rotation system can’t prevent spoilage if canned goods aren’t stored correctly. Keep your canned food in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. Extreme temperatures and moisture can degrade the cans and their contents over time.

Implementing these rotation practices will help you maintain a safe, nutritious, and reliable food supply, whether for daily use or long-term emergencies. Remember, food rotation is an ongoing process that requires regular attention, but the security it provides in ensuring you have a safe supply of food when needed is well worth the effort.


The shelf life of canned foods can extend significantly beyond their expiration dates, potentially providing a reliable source of nutrition in survival or emergency situations.

While the food may last for years, it’s vital to inspect each can for signs of spoilage before consumption, both externally and internally. A good practice for long-term storage is to employ a rotation system, ensuring optimal quality and reducing waste.

Always remember that the key to safe consumption is vigilance, knowledge, and proper storage.

Cited Sources

  1. Food Product Dating – USDA
  2. Shelf-Stable Food Safety – USDA 
  3. Proper Storage of Canned Goods – Colorado State University Extension 
  4. Food Storage – How long can you keep… – StillTasty
  5. Clostridium Botulinum – USDA
  6. Long-Term Storage of Canned Goods – Utah State University Extension
  7. The History of Canning – National Center for Home Food Preservation
  8. Canned Food, Shelf Life – Colorado State University Extension
  9. Shelf-Stable Food Safety – USDA
  10. Proper Storage of Canned Goods – Colorado State University Extension
  11. Food Storage – How long can you keep… – StillTasty