How Long Does Canned Food Really Last?

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Canned goods are perfect for quick meals and emergency scenarios. Here's what you need to know about how long canned food lasts—and how to store it properly.

Sure, we all love home-cooked meals made entirely from scratch, but sometimes we just don’t have the time (or interest) for that. Non-perishable foods like canned goods can be absolute lifesavers when you’re too busy to cook a pot of dried beans, boil and mash a pumpkin or make a trip to the store for fresh produce. Many long-lasting foods are easy to keep on hand, have multiple applications, are great in emergency situations like snowstorms and power outages, and seemingly last forever. But how long does canned food last—really? Can you ignore the sell-by date stamped on it?

The short answer: It depends, but the way canned foods are produced makes them able to last a long time. According to Candice Christian, a consumer and retail food safety expert with North Carolina State University Extension, proper canning methods “remove oxygen, destroy enzymes present in the food and prevent the growth of unwanted microorganisms.”

Whether you want to know exactly how long that canned food in your pantry will last or you’re looking for tips on how to extend the life of your favorite foods, we’ve got you covered. Once you’re up to speed, you’ll also want to know whether salt expires,  how fast butter goes bad and why you should definitely pay attention to bottled water’s expiration date.

Do canned foods really expire?

Yes and no. According to the USDA, if the expiration date passes on canned food in your pantry, “the product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident.” For instance, if you open a can of food that’s past its expiration date and it looks and smells fine, then it probably is. However, if it has an odd smell, color or texture, then the food should be trashed or composted.

You’ll also want to discard cans that are sharply dented, rusted, or swollen and bulging. This could indicate that spoilage microorganisms or dangerous toxins are now present in your canned foods (more on that below).

How long can properly canned food last?

It depends on the food. High-acid canned foods like tomatoes, fruits and pickled foods have shorter shelf lives and tend to keep their best quality for up to 12 to 18 months. Meanwhile, low-acid canned foods like meats and vegetables can keep for two to five years. Here’s the shelf life of some of the most common canned foods:

  • Fruits (peaches, pears, apple pie filling): 12–18 months
  • Tomato products (whole, crushed, sauce): 12–18 months
  • Pickled vegetables: 12–18 months
  • Sauerkraut: 2–5 years
  • Vegetables (peas, corn, green beans): 2–5 years
  • Beans (black, kidney, pinto, garbanzo): 2–5 years
  • Soups (non-tomato-based): 2–5 years
  • Meats (ham, tuna, sausage): 2–5 years

Can canned food last 20 years? The USDA says that “most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely.” But you’ll want to do the sight and smell test before tossing anything super old into your recipes, and you’ll have better luck with items like vegetables, non-tomato soups and beans. In fact, according to the Utah State University Extension, beans packaged in #10 cans (or Mylar-type bags, with the oxygen removed) have a shelf life of 10 or more years. One study even found that pinto beans, in particular, could be stored up to 30 years, with more than 80% of consumers on a test panel saying that they were acceptable from a taste perspective.

If you’re canning your own food in Mason jars, Christian says you should consume those items within one year. And these are the foods that you should toss after their expiration date.

Is it safe to eat expired canned food?

Quite often, it is safe to eat expired canned food. The use-by and sell-by dates stamped on cans generally indicate when the manufacturer estimates the food will have lost its peak quality, freshness or nutritional value. However, those dates don’t actually have anything to do with food safety, so they aren’t perfect indicators of how long canned food lasts. And here’s an interesting food fact: While these “expired” foods may lose some of their vitamin content, their protein and mineral content will remain unchanged. That said, they may not smell or taste as good as they used to.

Tamika Sims, PhD, the senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council, says canned goods can be safe and healthy to consume for years after their best-by or best-quality dates but stresses that the cans must be inspected for deep dents, swelling and rust. “If the can’s integrity has been compromised, it means the food inside can be contaminated,” says Sims, adding that cans may be damaged if they’re frozen, stored in high-heat areas or kept in moist conditions.

In that case, the food would be “unsafe to consume and should be discarded to avoid foodborne illness.” Microbial contamination can make you super sick, and ingesting Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen that causes botulism, can be fatal. Luckily, botulism in contaminated foods is rare, but you should still throw out any cans that exhibit the red flags noted above.

How should you store canned food?

There are a few factors that affect the answer to the question “How long does canned food last?” And most of them relate to their storage spots. Cans should be stored in a cool, dry place, like a pantry or cupboards that are not subject to extreme temperatures. In other words, don’t store them above or next to the stove or oven, and never store food in your car. According to Sims, you should aim to store cans at 85 degrees or lower and avoid temperatures below freezing and over 100 degrees. She suggests checking the temperature in your pantry, particularly if you live in a warmer climate. That said, cans made to be consumed by people who live in tropical regions (where temperatures are often high and have humid atmospheres) have specialized manufacturing procedures to help them resist these environmental conditions.

Once canned food has been opened, any unused portions should be transferred into a storage container with a lid (glass and plastic work great) and then stored in the refrigerator. High-acid foods (like tomatoes) will last five to seven days in the fridge, while low-acid foods (like meats and veggies) will last three to five days.

Now that you know how long canned goods last, find out how long cooked meat lasts in the fridge and if it’s safe to eat expired eggs.

Sources:

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Cassandra Brooklyn
Cassandra Brooklyn is a writer, guidebook author, and international tour leader based in New York City. She writes regularly about travel, food, health, and tech and has been published in Reader’s Digest, The Daily Beast, Fodor’s, AAA, Lonely Planet, Matador Network, The Culture Trip, Travel + Leisure, Moon Travel Guides, Medium, and Far & Wide, among others. She earned her Master’s degree in Psychology from New York University and her BBA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.