Canned Goods – How Long Will They Really Last?

Canned goods have a longer shelf life than you might suspect.

Commercially canned foods can be a great way to build a healthy store of a variety of foods. You can build your food stores on a very small budget if you carefully watch the sales. Purchase only those items which your family likes to eat no matter how good the sale is.

We bought several cases of canned salmon at a killer price only to end up feeding it to the cats several years later because we didn’t like it (something about the skin and bones mixed in with the meat). Another mistake was canned stew. Theoretically it would be great in an emergency but no one liked it, so it just sat around until it was old and was fed to the chickens. Yet we can not seem to buy enough nasty canned Spaghettios to last a year because of our 5 year-old son. Build your family food store with foods which your family enjoys.

Case lot sales may or may not have the best prices on canned foods. Sometimes the best deals are in regular weekly ads. Always check the dates on the cans to ensure you are purchasing fresh food. Whenever we find a great deal on something, we purchase enough to last a year. We know about how many bottles of ketchup we need in our supply so every time there is a good sale, we buy however many we need to make sure we have 24 bottles of ketchup on hand. It saves a lot of money in the long run and prevents last minute trips to the grocery store.

Staples such as canned meats, beans, vegetables, fruits, and soups can be a great foundation for many recipes. Canned chili makes a quick and easy meal. Spaghettios are a favorite quick lunch for our little ones. I love canned chicken because it is so versatile. You can add it to soups, casseroles or serve it cold in salads or in sandwiches with a little garlic salt and mayo.

Let us explore how to tell the approximate age of commercially canned goods. There are a couple of ways cans may be marked.

“Sell-By” date – most commonly used with perishable foods tells the store how long a product may be displayed for sale.
“Best if Used By (or Before)”date – recommended date for best quality or flavor. Food is typically edible long past this date if stored in a cool, dry place. Do not allow canned foods to freeze as it may compromise the seal and ruin the contents.
“Use-By”date – the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. Date is determined by manufacturer.
“Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

I attended a class where the speaker owned his own herbal supplement company. He shared that he was legally required to keep samples from each lot for two years past the date on the package. They dated the package for use within two years even though the product is perfectly good for much longer than that. They simply did not have the storage space to keep all of those samples for longer than four years.

Actual Shelf Life is not determined by the date on a can, but by storage conditions which can prolong or decrease the quality of the food.

  • The steamboat Bertrand sunk to the bottom of the Missouri River in 1865. In 1968, canned food items (peaches, oysters, plum tomatoes, honey, and mixed vegetables) were recovered from the wreckage. Chemists analyzed the products for bacterial contamination and nutrient value. The food had lost its fresh appearance and smell, however no microbial growth was found and they determined it was safe to eat. Protein and calcium levels remained high. Significant amounts of vitamin A and C were destroyed.
  • National Food Processors Association (NFPA) chemists analyzed a 40 year old can of corn from a California basement. It looked and smelled like freshly canned corn. There were no contaminants and most of the original nutrients were present.
  • The U.S. Army conducted a study which revealed that canned meats, vegetables, and jams were in an excellent state of preservation after 46 years.

Food Safety – Never use a can which is rusted or bulging. Optimal storage conditions are in a cool (40-70 degrees), dry place. Never eat food which has an off odor, flavor, color or appearance. It is not worth the risk. The health of your family is worth much more than any can of food. Read more on the danger of botulism. Learn to rotate your food stores well, in order to enjoy the highest nutrient value in canned foods.

Infant formula– Infants are fragile and require special consideration. Formula is marked with a “Use-By” date and will maintain the quality of the nutrients on the label until that date. As formula ages it can separate and clog an ordinary nipple. Caloric value is constant with time. Nutritional value will slowly decrease. It is best to give infants formula before the “Use-By” date whenever possible.

Washington State University — “If a product is correctly processed, it should remain safe until opened or the seal is broken. The U.S. Army has found that canned meats, vegetables and jam were in “excellent states of preservation” after 46 years. However, long storage is not recommended. For high quality (versus safety), the broadest guideline given by the U.S.D.A. is to use high-acid canned food (fruits, tomatoes and pickled products) in 18 to 24 months, and low-acid (meats and vegetables) in two to five years.”

We are not advocating storing food for extended periods of time. It is always best to rotate food. The point we want to make is that canned foods will stay good for many years if stored in a cool, dry place. Well past the printed date on the can. These products are highly convenient, inexpensive and easy to store. They can be eaten right out of the can if necessary. Stocking up on canned goods is a wise idea. When things get tough, a pantry full of a variety of canned goods might see you safely through a crisis.