Your stored foods may be safe to eat much longer than you might think. One excuse we frequently hear for not storing food for emergencies is that the food gets too old before they get around to using it, so they throw it out. Food is an incredibly wise investment, even if you chose not to rotate it. Do not be discouraged by a shelf life printed on the can. Let’s explore the real shelf life of stored foods.
Is my food storage still safe to eat after 5 years, 10 years, or even 20 years of sitting in the basement? Can eating old food storage make my family sick? Properly packaged and stored dry grains can be safely consumed for more than 30 years. Canned foods stored in a cool, dry location, that are not bulging or leaking, can be safely eaten for several years past their best-if-used-by date printed on the can. The vitamin content of stored foods typically decreases with the passage of time, but the caloric and mineral content remains constant.
Best Practices for Storing Food
The actual shelf life of stored foods is largely determined by storage conditions, not the date printed on the can. Visit our post 8 Enemies to Your Food Storage and How to Slay Them. In this post, we review the best practices which will significantly extend the life of your stored foods.
In summary, food will retain the most nutrients when it is stored in a cool, dry location and is properly packaged for storage. Do the best you can to protect the food from air, chemicals, insects, rodents, light, moisture and heat.
Actual Shelf Life of Canned Foods
Canned foods are a fantastic way to store foods for emergencies that are easily rotated in your normal diet. How long will canned foods actually last? Do you really need to throw them out if the best-if-used-by date on the can has passed? The answer is absolutely not! Check out the following studies that support our opinion.
Study #1 – 100-Year-Old Canned Goods
The Steamboat Bertrand sunk to the bottom of the Missouri River in 1865. In 1968, over 100 years later scientists were given canned foods that had been recovered from the wreckage. The cans included; peaches, oysters, plum tomatoes, honey, and mixed vegetables.
The chemists at the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) analyzed the products for bacterial contamination and nutrient value. Not surprisingly, the food had lost the fresh appearance and smell as you might expect from new. However, there was no microbial growth and the food was determined to be safe to eat. Significant amounts of vitamins A and C were lost, but protein and calcium levels remained high.
Study #2 – 40-Year-Old Canned Goods
NFPA chemists analyzed a 40-year-old can of corn from a California basement. The corn looked and smelled like recently canned corn. They found that the corn was safe from contaminants and maintained most of the original nutrients.
Study #3 – 46-Year-Old Canned Goods
The U.S. Army conducted a study on the shelf-life of canned goods which revealed that canned meats, vegetables, and jams were in an excellent state of preservation after 46 years. I originally found this research at Washington State University, but the link is no longer available.
Study #4 – Our Personal Experience Storing Canned Goods
We have been storing food for many years and our experience has given us a high level of confidence that canned foods are safe to eat long past the recommended date on the can. Allow me to elaborate.
I purchased 10 cases of canned peaches on a fantastic case lot sale one year. I was a bit overzealous in my estimation of how many peaches my family would really eat, especially considering the fact that I bottle peaches every year and they are significantly tastier than commercially canned peaches. After 10 years, the canned peaches still looked and tasted great. They were mushier than they were the first few years and we ended up using most of them in smoothies.
This may not always be the case. One day I noticed something black leaking from a case of commercially canned applesauce. I brought the unopened case upstairs to investigate and discovered something frightening. Check out the photos below.
The contents of some of the cans were rotten, while other cans were fresh and looked okay to eat. Perhaps there was a problem during manufacturing and they never sealed appropriately. Maybe the case had been frozen compromising the seals when it was sitting outside during the case lot sale. I will never know exactly what happened.
The case of applesauce was an isolated event. We have cases of the same brand, purchased at the same store that have been fine. We have had no other incidences other than an occasional can of tomato sauce or green beans. If in doubt, we throw it out. This has taught me the importance of checking our food stores and supplies regularly.
I attended a conference where the speaker provided some interesting insight as to why the date stamped on foods and water bottles is so short. He explained that, as a manufacturer, he is required to maintain 2 samples from each lot for 2 years after the printed expiration date. It was to his benefit to select a date that ensured the product had time to sell, but that did not require him to track thousands of samples for long periods of time.
Do not let the date on shelf-stable food products discourage you from stocking up on a good supply of commercially canned products. They are perfect for maintaining a supply of quality foods that are easy to prepare, require no fuel to consume, and add great diversity to a diet.
Our goal is to rotate through our supplies so that nothing ever goes more than a few years past the expiration date.
Actual Shelf Life of Dry Grains, Legumes, Dehydrated and Freeze-Dried Foods
In the case of these dry goods, the shelf life varies not only by storage methods but is also affected by packaging. Number 10 cans tend to create the ideal environment for the longest storage. Sealed plastic buckets are acceptable, but they don’t tend to perform as well over the long haul. We choose to use a combination of storage containers.
45-Year-Old Rainy Day Foods
We were given the unique opportunity to personally test some food storage which was purchased in 1960. It had been stored under the stairs, in a cool basement for 45 years. We were pleasantly surprised to find that all of the foods were still edible.
The wheat made great bread. The dehydrated applesauce and other foods looked and smelled fine. Everything we tasted was of acceptable quality. We chose not to consume all of it due to the decreased nutrient content, but it would have been safe if we were desperate.
Another opportunity was presented to us to evaluate wheat stored in sacks and square metal cans since early 1970. The grain was stored in a cool basement storage room. We were shocked that the sacks of wheat showed no evidence of infestation. Wheat stored untreated in original paper bags is usually prone to insect or rodent infestation.
The large square cans of wheat were rusted on the exterior, but the wheat inside remained in great condition. We decided not to consume this wheat because we did not have a high level of comfort as to the history of the grain. Our chickens loved it and it supplemented their diet for several months. The wheat came back to us as fresh eggs, resulting in no waste.
50-Year-Old Beans and Rice
A year ago a friend’s grandparents died and we were again gifted with rice and beans dating back to 1969. That is just shy of 50 years old. The food had been stored at the bottom of closets or in a storage room on the ground level of a home without a basement.
Much of the rice was stored in original bags. We learned that the rice had been coated with talc and had to be rinsed before cooking. The rice you buy today is no longer coated with talc and should not be rinsed. Many varieties of rice are coated with vitamins to supplement the nutritional value and rinsing it washes away important nutrients.
We discovered little black skeletal remains of a variety of bugs when we rinsed the rice. It had an off odor when we cooked it so we did not consume it. However, the chickens went crazy over the cooked rice. It was quite entertaining to watch them devour every last grain. They enjoyed a pot of cooked rice every day for several months.
The beans were a bit darker and shinier than fresh beans. We sprinkled the sacks of beans in our chicken orchard to allow them to break down and add nitrogen to the soil. As my son would say, they looked a little “sketchy.” They may have been fine if they had been stored in a #10 can. Remember … do not ever consume food that you are not sure about when you have much better alternatives available to you.
Brigham Young University (BYU) Studies
BYU has conducted extensive research on the shelf-life of foods. The report Nutritional Adequacy and Shelf Life of Food Storage by Dean Eliason and Michelle Lloyd states:
We have collected samples of dry food stored in No. 10 cans for up to 30 years at room temperature or cooler. So far, we have following food products: powdered milk, rice, baking powder, instant potatoes, dried apples, all-purpose flour, pasta, pinto beans, wheat and powdered eggs.
This study demonstrates that those #10 cans of food you have stored just might still be good to eat. However, false confidence in your food storage could prove deadly so be sure to open a can or bucket every once in a while to smell, taste and observe the quality. Once opened, it is no longer a good candidate for storage and should be used or disposed of.
The Jones Family Food Stores
The bottom of my pantry is lined with 3 to 5-gallon buckets with gamma seal lids where I keep all of my dry goods. Whenever I run low, we bring up buckets or #10 cans or Mylar bags to replenish the supply. I have found this to be a very effective way to keep my supplies rotated.
In the photos below, Jonathan is adding sugar stored in Mylar bags that we purchased in 1999 to our sugar bucket. After 17 years, the sugar is a bit clumpy. The clumps are easily broken up and it uses just like fresh sugar. White sugar is one of those items that has an indefinite shelf life. I prefer to keep everything, including sugar, rotated when possible.
Fresh foods are the best source to obtain the highest amounts of vitamins and nutrients. Garden fresh vegetables are a much better choice than 25-year-old freeze dried veggies. The take-home message is that food is edible long past the date printed on the can.
The “best-if-used-by” date is a good measure for the length of time in which the food retains most of its original nutrients and quality. “Life-sustaining” shelf-life is the length of time food will sustain life and is still safe to consume.
Calories, minerals, and carbohydrates do not change significantly during extended storage. Proteins can deteriorate and denature. Fats go rancid and develop off odors and flavors. Vitamins may be destroyed by light, heat, and oxidation. We are not advocating storing foods for long periods of time. As a rule, rotating food storage is the best way to receive optimal quality and nutrients.
Please read Hunger Insurance – Don’t Get Caught Without It! to understand just how important your stored food supplies are for the security of your family. We encourage you to build your food stores as best you can and store them in the best condition available to you. There is great peace of mind that comes with doing this. Click here for our personal recommendations for quality suppliers of long term food storage.