How Long Does Canned Food Last?

homeless man - how long does canned food last

by Tara Dodrill

How long does canned food last? Well, that will depend on several very important factors. First, there is a difference between the potential shelf life of home-canned fresh produce or meat and commercially canned food items – at least according to the United States Department of Agriculture – USDA.

As a general rule store-bought canned foods can remain edible for several years past the listed expiration date on the can, however, canned foods that are eaten past the listed expiration date may not have the full nutritional value as the same foods that are eaten before the given expiration date on the can.

There are several different varieties of “canned” food and date stamps applied to supermarket preserved food – both of these factors can make it very confusing to know when it is time to throw out the items stocked in your pantry. Fear of eating canned food beyond a date stamped onto a can accounts for about 20 percent of safe food waste in the United States annually.

Home Canned Food

The federal government (USDA) only considers home canned food shelf stable for up to 12 months and commercially canned food safe to eat for between two to five years – depending on the type of food inside the can.

Anyone who has been growing and canning food for a long time, or grew up eating home canned food from grandma’s garden, already knows most food canned from a backyard garden or farm is typically stored and eaten for far longer than 12 months. If properly canned and stored, many farmers, homesteaders, and preppers eat home canned meat and produce for up to five or sometimes even 10 years, after it was harvested – but the USDA strongly recommends against such a practice.

Just as with commercially canned food, it is essential to visually inspect the storage container for signs of cracking, damage, rust, or leaking – as well as the look of the food inside, before consuming any preserved food.

The answer to how long home canned food will remain safe to eat will vary widely based upon who you ask.

A can of corn discovered in 1974 and had been sitting on a basement shelf in California for 40 years was examined by scientists from the National Food Processors Association. The researchers found that the canned corn both smelled and looked like it had only recently been canned. Upon further review, the scientists also learned a few of the nutrients in the corn (vitamin C, in particular) had lower levels than freshly canned or in date corn.

When cans of peppers were unearthed from a steamboat that sank in Nebraska more than a century, extremely similar results to those found after reviewing the can of corn.

Will every home canned food item yield these same results? Maybe, maybe not. The USDA would not want you to eat anything canned in your own kitchen that is even a quarter as old, but learning how to can food properly, could make a life or death difference during a long-term disaster…and the extensive reconstruction phase which would follow.

Expiration Dates Explained

There are no true standards when it comes to the labeling of expiration dates of canned food, with the exception of baby formula. The expiration dates placed on cans is primarily intended for use by grocery stores so they know when to pull food from shelves because it is no longer guaranteed safe to consume beyond that date.

Some manufacturers use the term “expiration” others use phrases like “use by” or “best by” when stamping a date onto the bottom of a can. Once that relatively arbitrary dates passes, that does not necessarily mean the can most be thrown out and money lost. That date merely means the food is guaranteed to be safe to consume until the date stamp on the can passes.

Shelf Life Storage Factors

How the canned food, whether it is preserved at home or in a factory, is stored, will most likely have a vast impact on its shelf life. Canned food that is stored in a cool and dry place will almost always last a lot longer than canned food stored in a warm place that is exposed to even indirect artificial light or sunlight.

This is why tens of thousands of American used to routinely undertook the back-breaking work of digging a root cellar. The cool and dark storage area where the corn, tomatoes, and peppers noted above were found, almost certainly played a significant role in the incredible preservation longevity. Exposure to light also can diminish the overall nutrient quality of canned food.

While storing canned food in a basement should help it remain safe to eat long past the noted “sell by” date on the can, the placement location even in the underground storage area, is still substantially important.

If the home or commercially canned food is stored near a furnace or beneath pipes where hot water runs, it probably not last as long as the same food stored elsewhere in the basement away from the house utility features.

There are some drawbacks to both using root cellars and basements for storing canned food. If the canned food was not properly sealed, moisture from the typically damp location will infiltrate the food, forcing it to become either invisibly unsafe to out or quite visibly rancid.

Dampness causes the metal in home canned food or commercially preserved cans, to corrode and ultimately leak If the lid or any portion of the can is damaged or there is flaking in the lid, that might indicate acid has worn through the metal and permitted potentially harmful microorganisms to get inside.

If the lid of home canned food or any part of commercially canned food shows signs of rust, the contents inside are likely contaminated and no longer safe to eat. Before consuming any canned food past the USDA recommended guidelines, always inspect the food for signs of discoloration or unnatural changes in the texture of the food – this is actually a great habit to get into even when opening a can of food that is only a few weeks to months old.

Also review the color and texture of any broth, brine, or syrup the food is packed in to better detect signs of spoilage. I the liquid boast a musty smell or appears either opagu or “muddy” in color, that is a sure sign the canned food might no longer be safe to eat.

If liquid squirts out of the can upon opening, air and moisture have infiltrated the inside, making the food quite unlikely to still be safe to consume.

Should you still be unsure about the quality of the food inside a can after following the tips above, do a little taste test.

Dip a clean finger just slightly into the can and sample its contents. Hopefully, you would be able to determine if the food “tastes right” from past experience eating the same item. This test should only be used as a last resort during a disaster scenario when no other food was available and you were desperate to eat.

Impact Of Acid Content On Shelf Life

Canned food with a low acidic content can remain safe to eat approximately two to even five, years longer than food with a high acidic content. Foods that are high in acid contain vinegar. The same vinegar that helps to preserve the beneficial nutrients in the food cause them to decompose at a far greater rate.

Food with a high acid content should boast the crispest or fresh taste as well as the most nutrients for the first 12 months after being preserved, but they will not be shelf stable.

Therefore, home or commercially canned meat and fish could potentially possess a longer shelf life than many varieties of preserved vegetables or fruit.

Canned pumpkin, peas, carrots, potatoes, and soups as long as they do not contain tomatoes, should have a substantially longer shelf life well past the “best by” date stamped on the can or permanent marker date inked to the top of a Mason jar lid.

High acidic foods that will likely only be shelf stable or up to 18 months include all varieties of citrus, tomatoes, and pickles – due to the amount of vinegar in the brine used to make them.

Five Commercially Canned Food Items With Longest Shelf Life

  1. Hormel Spam. – This cheap processed meat product might not be a gourmet delight, but it is filled with protein, sodium, and “good” fats that should help your body strong during a long-term disaster. You could mix the canned Spam into soup or stew recipes to create more filling and energy building meals. How long will Spam keep? Some claim to have opened and safely eaten a can of Spam 10 full years after the expiration date stamped on the top of the can.
  2. Beef Stew – This is a low acid offering from the supermarket soup aisle because it does not contain tomatoes. It should safely keep, when stored properly, for about five years.
  3. Chunked Chicken Breast – The small cans of chunked or shredded poultry you would buy to make chicken salad also boast a low acidic count and are full of protein and sodium. This low acid canned food is typically expected to remain shelf stable for around five years when stored in a cool dry and dark place.
  4. Canned Chili With Beans – This protein-rich commercially canned food also possesses at least an average fiber count and when stored properly, can remain safe to eat for at least five years.
  5. Green Beans – Getting in your greens could prove to be both especially difficult and important during a doomsday disaster. Stocking up on green beans when they are on sale or adding a few more rows to your garden will increase your level of shelf-stable greens. When stored properly, green beans should remain safe to eat for at least five years but possibly seven.

Food Rotation System

To avoid the loss of food and the money it cost to either grow or buy it, use a simple food rotation process for all types of canned goods. The first can put onto the shelf should be the first one pulled out and used.

Food storage rack system made for commercially canned food are designed so you roll a can onto an upper ramp, forcing each can to be pushed toward the opening where it can be selected and used – first can in…first can out.

Also, read: What Foods Have the Longest Shelf Life? [My Top 20 Checklist]

32 Comments

  1. In the last 20 years I’ve lost 2 #10 cans of cornbread mix from my cellar, both due to bulging. I still go there are get food for the pantry. Although I have no means of testing for nutrition loss, So far everything still tastes, smells, and looks fine.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • JP, we lost a #10 can of cheese powder the same way. We make our own cheese and egg powder now that we have a large homestead and raise livestock – more time consuming than just buying it, but fun adn a whole lot cheaper.

    • A good practice is open the container, seal the item in mason jars.

  2. I have often wondered about home canned food longevity. My wife and I canned 96 quarts of Blue Lake String Beans the summer of 2014. She has been under the opinion that 1 to 2 years is all that the canning process is good for. We have been using the beans even today at 4 years and they still taste and smell the same as when we put them up July, 2014. As long as the top isn’t bulged up, seal broken or contents discolored, I feel they should be good.

    • Oren,

      That is the same general rule of thumb my husband and I use when retrieving home canned food from the cellar and pantry. We have eaten meat that was canned over five years ago and vegetables from an even older date.

    • Oren,

      I have often wondered about home canned food longevity. My wife and I canned 96 quarts of Blue Lake String Beans the summer of 2014. We have been using the beans even today at 4 years and they still taste and smell the same as when we put them up July, 2014. As long as the top isn’t bulged up, seal broken or contents discolored, I feel they should be good.

      I think typically home canned goods were only kept a year, since those who grew and canned them, used them through the winter and well into the summer as the new garden was growing and producing, in an almost subsistence manner.
      For low acid foods like beans I assume you pressure canned them, in which case I’ve eaten foods years after canning with no discoloration or foul taste. Nutrition may be a concern; but, assuming you’re not just living on beans and otherwise have a well rounded diet, I think you’re OK.

    • I have eaten green beans, tomato juice, and canned tomatoes that were canned for 20 years!!!
      They were great.
      I learned from my grandmother and mother,

  3. This article mentioned the rusting that can occur on home canned lids in particular. There is a fix for that recommended by the Ball/Kerr lid companies. It is to wash and dry those lids after canning, leave the ring off… and dip them in a lttle wax to coat and protect the lid from moisture…
    Another thing that can be done with foods as they become close to date, or out of date… after you have determined they are still good.. They can be dehydrated or freeze dried… things like pickles and relish could be used for seasoning powders and items like corn, string beans and mixed veggies can be stored in oxygen free jars. This process can also be used for tomato products.
    Dehydrating reduces the volume of product of veggies by 1/2 and meats to 1/3. String beans can be greatly reduced. I once took 6.5 cans of string beans- at expiration, and after dehydration placed them in a pint jar. I use these for soups and stews .
    Freeze drying reduces the weight, My understanding is the freeze drying process keeps the basic shape., and size,but the weight is reduced from water removed.so it may not pack as tightly as regular dehydrated..and shelf life is much longer than dehydrated.

    • Anonamo Also,

      Freeze drying reduces the weight, My understanding is the freeze drying process keeps the basic shape., and size,but the weight is reduced from water removed.so it may not pack as tightly as regular dehydrated..and shelf life is much longer than dehydrated.

      Good points and the freeze drying is also spot on. Both dehydration and freeze drying rmove the water, meaning that bacteria have no water in which to live and grow; but, FD uses no heat, which can denature some of the enzymes in the food. Powdering keeps the flavor and most of the nutrition; but, loses the texture, which rehydrated freeze dried foods sort of preserves.
      For long term food storage in case you need it, either method allows you to keep fruits and vegetables longer.
      These also work for meats and dairy products like cheese; but, so does brining and aging.
      There are a ton of ways to skin this particular cat.

  4. I volunteered for quite a few years as a Master Food Preserver – got to take lots of preserving classes offered by the university. Home canned food should last quite a few years safely – quality is a different story. Commercial canning starts with higher heat & a faster processing time than we can do at home. No one ever said so, but I suspect the reason home canned food has a shorter safety margin is that too many home canners don’t can their food all that safely. When I taught classes I would describe the safe methods of canning – especially of low acid foods – & inevitably there was someone who’d pipe up & say “I’ve always done it this way (unsafe method) & we’re still alive.”

    Taste testing low acid canned foods for safety isn’t such a good idea – botulism is the most deadly & also odorless & tasteless. Instead of tasting it from the can, bring the contents to a boil & boil for 10 minutes. Overcooked, but generally safe. Also boil the jar or bury it.

    Fortunately botulism is quite rare. It’s more common in my area as there are more spores living in the ground so I’m very, very cautious.

    • Bonnie ,

      Commercial canning starts with higher heat & a faster processing time than we can do at home.

      I had good friends whose father in law worked at a commercial cannery and I got to visit. You walk into a pressure vessel that’s reminiscent of a bank vault, where they push in racks of canned food that is brought to temperatures beyond what we can achieve with the best home pressure canners. Since the cans are mechanically sealed and are metal instead of glass, they can also torture the can more than we could at home.

      No one ever said so, but I suspect the reason home canned food has a shorter safety margin is that too many home canners don’t can their food all that safely. When I taught classes I would describe the safe methods of canning – especially of low acid foods – & inevitably there was someone who’d pipe up & say “I’ve always done it this way (unsafe method) & we’re still alive.”

      I hear people talk about how mom used to water bath can green beans and corn, and how they are still alive and I tell them they could probably walk out blindfolded on the freeway and survive; but, that possibility doesn’t make it a good choice.

      Taste testing low acid canned foods for safety isn’t such a good idea – botulism is the most deadly & also odorless & tasteless. Instead of tasting it from the can, bring the contents to a boil & boil for 10 minutes. Overcooked, but generally safe. Also boil the jar or bury it.

      Amen!!! it not only is odorless and tasteless ; but, can kill in dosages as small as is 0.03 ng/kg, meaning a 100 kg person (220 pounds) can die from as little as 30 ng. For comparison a low dose aspirin (81 mg) would contain 27,000,000 lethal doses if it were the toxin, so even a little taste can be lethal and the death is gruesome when it stops your breathing and you basically suffocate.

      Fortunately botulism is quite rare. It’s more common in my area as there are more spores living in the ground so I’m very, very cautious.

      I don’t know where you live; but, back in April 2015 in a little town just east of Columbus Ohio, a person died and many were hospitalized due to botulism toxin poisoning.
      Months later it was discovered that one of the church ladies had water bath canned potatoes, and then used those potatoes to make potato salad for the church pot luck.
      Here’s the sad an wholly avoidable story:
      1 dead in botulism outbreak linked to Ohio church potluck

  5. i recently read and article about the new canning lids. evidently they cannot be reused ? once pc construction? and are only good on the jar for like 18 months???

    • I also read this. I have shoe boxes of lids from Mennonite/Amish stores I bought in bulk years ago. I’m okay.
      But, if this is true..it means the rubber on the lids is compromised.

  6. Once again—I must tell canners I have eaten tomatoes, tomato juice, green beans canned for 20 YEARS!!! Even today, I have juice and tomatoes on my shelf that were canned 5/6 years ago.
    I eat all commercially canned foods before I use my home canned in jars.
    If you are doing it right, canned goods last for years, not months.

  7. In 2011 I found a case of Dinty-Moore beef stew that I’d put away for the possible Y2K non-event. It was more or less hidden behind tools in my storage room. I opened one and took about a drop of the liquid on my tongue. It tasted okay, so I put the can in the fridge and left it overnight to see if I’d become sick. I didn’t, so I microwaved it warm and tasted it again–seemed a little bland, but tasted okay. Still have a few of those cans put away for experimentation, stored away from more recently acquired canned preps.

    • I did the same for Y2K only with store canned green beans, Finally decided to eat them in 2009. They tasted okay, a little mushy, but not spoiled. I had them stored in a closet with temperature year-round of about 60 degrees.

      I typically eat my home-canned stuff within 2 years.

    • Today, I’m having chicken and dumplings with a best by date of Feb., 2011. I have commercial canned goods with 2012 best by dates as the oldest.
      Oh, I have a case of hominy with best by date 2009 and they are great.

  8. I try and eat everything in date if possible, my home made canned food is tossed out after 16 to 18 months, the quality of the food degrades and I don’t like the texture any longer. Foods that have a powder packet, or is in a paper type package it will degrade and gets stale after the good buy date so limit those types of foods, or eat and rotate them. I have dried canned water, flour, rice, crackers, and even some chili seasons, they are fine to eat after a year or so but even those I rotate out and use. Pet food, I was told not to open or put the food in a different container it will go bad very quickly too and a open bag of food, has about 30 days until the flavors dry out. I use a heavy tape to hold the package down to help retain and keep the air out of the cat food.

    • Just ate some 5 year out of date stove top stuffing from a packet in a cardboard box. Tasted great.

  9. I’ve finally run out of home canned green beans 7 years after canning them.

    Also, if you pressure can tomatoes rather than water bath canning them, they will last many years. I’ve still got tomatoes that were canned before the green beans and they tomatoes are great. Just like the day they went into the jar.

    I’ve canned venison, bacon and sausage links for my long term emergency storage, and they are as old or older than the green beans. Same for canned chicken soup.

    Bottom line, as the article states, examine the jar, jar lid and contents. When you open the jar, take a BIG sniff to see if it smells OK. Then use your best judgement.

    Ray

  10. I have eaten spam 2 years past the expiration date. Still good !!! Always smell the food and a small taste usually is enough. My chilli is still being eaten that I canned 2 years ago still tastes just like when I canned it.

  11. Good article and information. Thanks for posting this.

  12. On the contrary: Given that home canned foods are properly done – sterilized jars and lids and kept in a dark cool area, they can last for 10 years or more, except acid based foods, tomatoes etc are good for about 5 years and sometimes more.

    A ship was found that sunk over 100 years ago – maybe the one mentioned above, except when the contents were examined, “all” the canned foods were still palatable; some had minimal lose in color, some minimal loss in various nutrients, but overall, all the canned goods were still eatable and retained most of their color and nutrients. Imagine that was over 100 years ago when commercial canning was not as strict and modern as today.

    A warehouse in California was discovered to have been filled with canned goods from WWII, “all” the canned goods still retained their color and nutrition.

    Both a University and a Military study of long term storage foods found that low acid canned goods can last from 20-50 years or more.

    Dinty More soups, canned sardines, and many commercially canned goods are good for at least 20 to 30 years.

    The short lifetime given on labels and articles really refer to the “turnover” of foods. The farmer needs to sell his crop every year, so most harvested foods are given short shelf life’s in order to keep the money flowing to the farmer and the middle man companies.

    My grandparents, farmers in Saskatchewan Canada, with cold winters – would dig holes ground, layer straw on the bottom, put potato’s, beans, and low acid foods in the hole, cover with a thick layer of straw and use the food through the winter.

    Also: Sugar, flour, salt, rice, beans, oats and all your grains, wheat, barely, etc, if vacuum packed and kept in a cool dark environment – will last for 20-50 years, and even more.

    Get five gallon buckets from Walmart or Lowes, although only use lids with a rubber sea, such as from Lowes or order online. Buy “Mylar Bags” that come in various sizes – most company’s recommend or advise which size to use for different methods and they are pretty cheap. Get bags that come a few feet higher than the five gallon bucket buckets. Fill with rice, flour, sugar, beans, grains, or any very dry foods – drop in a few “oxygen absorbers” also available from those selling Mylar Bags (very cheap). The bag will extend about or at least a foot or more from the top of the bucket. Fold the bag over onto a flat surface, bench, wood plank, whatever. Using a Walmart type vacuum sealer with the tube accessory, place tube in corner of bag that is folded over and flat – Iron the bag shut about two-four inches at the top up against the inserted tube (tube inserted about two inches or more past the area ironed shut. Vacuum, and then when vacuum in completed quickly iron bag just below the tube. Many examples on the internet on how to do this and various other ways. This will keep your foods good for at least 10 – 20 years if done properly and maybe more.

    • Jarheadusmc,

      A ship was found that sunk over 100 years ago – maybe the one mentioned above, except when the contents were examined, “all” the canned foods were still palatable; some had minimal lose in color, some minimal loss in various nutrients, but overall, all the canned goods were still eatable and retained most of their color and nutrients. Imagine that was over 100 years ago when commercial canning was not as strict and modern as today.

      Also keep in mind that the canned food on a sunken ship at depthe will be in an anaerobic and very cold environment, so if the salt water doesn’t eat through the cans, the lack of oxygen and very cold temperatures will further enhance the preservation.

      The short lifetime given on labels and articles really refer to the “turnover” of foods. The farmer needs to sell his crop every year, so most harvested foods are given short shelf life’s in order to keep the money flowing to the farmer and the middle man companies.

      That’s part of it; but, there is also the litigation factor. Without an expiration date, 40 year old spoiled food that makes someone ill could get a company sued, and today they might even lose. It’s the same reason ladders and lawn mowers are covered in warnig stickers.

      My grandparents, farmers in Saskatchewan Canada, with cold winters – would dig holes ground, layer straw on the bottom, put potato’s, beans, and low acid foods in the hole, cover with a thick layer of straw and use the food through the winter.

      What you describe here is a root cellar. Once you get below frost level which varies in depth depending on your location, the ground is rather consistently cool and provides a nice environment for most root vegetables and some others.

      Get five gallon buckets from Walmart or Lowes, although only use lids with a rubber sea, such as from Lowes or order online. Buy “Mylar Bags” that come in various sizes – most company’s recommend or advise which size to use for different methods and they are pretty cheap. Get bags that come a few feet higher than the five gallon bucket buckets. Fill with rice, flour, sugar, beans, grains, or any very dry foods – drop in a few “oxygen absorbers” also available from those selling Mylar Bags (very cheap). The bag will extend about or at least a foot or more from the top of the bucket. Fold the bag over onto a flat surface, bench, wood plank, whatever. Using a Walmart type vacuum sealer with the tube accessory, place tube in corner of bag that is folded over and flat – Iron the bag shut about two-four inches at the top up against the inserted tube (tube inserted about two inches or more past the area ironed shut. Vacuum, and then when vacuum in completed quickly iron bag just below the tube. Many examples on the internet on how to do this and various other ways.

      You complicated this a bit. You purchase either 5 or 6 gallon Mylar bags and O2 absorbers in the 1900-2200 range. The volume of a 5 gallon bucket is 3785.41 cc; but, you only need to remove oxygen from 20% of the air remaining after filling the container with food. In my case I’ve never vacuumed the bag for the bucket, simply fold it down as far as you can get it, squeeze out as much air as you can, activate and insert the absorber, and seal the last of the Mylar bag. Check back in a few hours and you should see the bag pulled in tighter like you’re pulling a vacuum, which you actually are.
      I wish someone who lived near me had a need for some 2.5 & 5 gallon food grade buckets, since I have a nearly limitless supply and have run out of people to give them to.

  13. I live in Ohio and wouldn’t mind getting some of the food grade buckets

    • Lonewolf,
      If you click on my name it will take you to my website theohioprepper.org where you can send me an email and we can exchange information and arrange pickup if you’re close enough or game for the trip.
      I’m North West of Columbus in Northern Union County.
      Be sure to mention this forum and your name here: Lonewolf

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  15. So what happens if you have to leave your home? All that prepping goes to waste? Is it a 50/50 chance that you will be able to even use all the food that is prepped?

  16. Decades ago before we went organic Paleo, for variety, we used to purchase marinara sardines and canned fruit such as pineapple.

    Each of these products burned through within a couple years.