Canned Goods – How Long Will They Really Last?

Commercially canned foods can be a great way to build a healthy store of a variety of foods. You can build your short term food store on a very small budget if you carefully watch the sales.

Are commercially canned foods a good option for long term food storage? Canned foods are not a good option for long term (25-30 year) food storage but they are a fantastic option for short term (5-7 year) emergency food storage.

A stash of canned meats, soups, chili, vegetables, fruits, and beans are the perfect solution to foods for short term power outage, temporary financial challenges, and to make sure that you always have something quick to eat.

Store Only Foods You Like to Eat

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. Others would love canned stew.

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 that your family enjoys.

Tips for Stocking Up on Canned Goods

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 cans of food.

Stock Up at Sale Prices

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.

Rotate, Rotate, Rotate!

It is important to keep canned goods rotated. While they may be safe to eat longer than expected, they will lose valuable nutrition and taste as they age.

Develop some type of first-in-first-out system. I have a system where the new stock is placed on the top shelf and the older stock is placed on the lower shelves so that it is easy to reach and is naturally taken first.

What Do the Dates on Canned Goods Actually Mean?

The manufacturer is required by law to date, or code, each can of food they produce. Let’s explore exactly what these dates mean to us.

Sell-By Date

The “Sell-By” date is most commonly used with perishable foods tells the store how long a product may be displayed for sale. The food will be safe to eat for a while after the date has passed.

Best-If-Used-By Date

The “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is the 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 “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date is determined by the manufacturer.

Closed or Coded Dates

The “Closed or Coded” date is a packing number for use by the manufacturer. You may need to contact them directly to understand what the numbers mean.

Learn how to significantly extend the life of your canned goods in our article: 8 Food Storage Enemies and How to Slay Them

Why Date Products that Have an Indefinite Shelf Life?

Dates are often simply for the convenience of 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.

As a result of this regulation, 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.

What Determines Actual Shelf Life of Canned Goods?

The 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. We found several interesting studies that show that canned goods are safe to eat for much longer than you may think.

100-Year-Old Canned Goods Safe to Consume

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 vitamins A and C were destroyed.

40-Year-old Canned Corn Safe to Consume

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.

U.S. Army Study

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.

Washington State University Study

Results of a study conducted by Washington State University states: “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.”

Danger Signs That Canned Food Is NOT Safe to Eat

There does come a point where canned goods may no longer be safe to eat. Recognize the indicators and NEVER use any food that is suspect. If any of the following conditions are present, dispose of the food immediately.

Rusted or Bulging Cans

Never use a can that is rusted or bulging.

Off Color, Flavor, Odor, or Appearance

Never eat food that 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 about the danger of botulism in our post, Is There a Killer Lurking in Your Food Stores?

For more information you may want to visit, Food Storage: How Old is Too Old?

Note on Infant Formula

Infants are fragile and require special consideration. Baby 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. The nutritional value will slowly decrease. It is best to give infants formula before the “Use-By” date whenever possible.

A Few Final Words About Canned Goods in Emergency Food Storage

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.

We have found that commercially canned foods are a great asset to our short term food storage. They are highly convenient, inexpensive, easy-to-store, and 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.

Thanks for being part of the solution!

Jonathan and Kylene Jones


Kylene Jones is a blogger, content creator, published author, motivational speaker, homesteader, prepper, mother, and grandmother. She practices self-reliance, provident living, and emergency preparedness in her everyday life. She loves working with her husband, Jonathan, and is committed to helping our community be prepared to thrive during the challenges that lie in our future.

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