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Debunking the Myth of Canned Food Expiration Dates, by T.L.

Canned Goods

Even if you’re not yet a prepper, you likely have at least some canned food goods on your shelf with an expiration date on them. Perhaps you have even taken up canning your own food. Either way, canned goods are a common staple. That is the case for good reason. However, do you really know the truth about canned food shelf life?

I’m surprised by how many people seem to have a deep trust of those “magical dates” on canned foods. But what are those dates anyway? What do they mean?

Myths to Debunk

Various Types of Canned Food Dates

Here, let’s debunk some of the myths that surround those dates on canned foods.

Commercial canned foods are generally “good” far beyond the dates stated. And, get this. In almost all cases, the dates stated on foods aren’t expiration dates anyway. Rather, they are “use by” dates.

The use-by dates on cans and packages serve to protect the reputation of the food. They have nothing to do with food safety, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website clearly states:

“Use-by” dates refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly.

Actually, except for infant formula, product dating is not even required by federal regulations.

While they may not be required, generally you will see manufacturers use one of three types of dates on products. None of these is an expiration date. The dates used are:

  • A “Sell-By” date, which simply tells the store how long to display the product for sale.
  • A “Best if Used-By” date is what the manufacturer recommends for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer of the product determines the date.

Of course, manufacturers have an incentive for consumers to purchase more food, so the temptation is there for them to recommend short-term dates to encourage more frequent purchases.

Long-Term Canned Goods Safety

Okay, you’re probably wondering how long canned foods remain safe. Am I right?

As it turns out, the answer is that canned foods are safe a lot longer than you think. Numerous studies show that foods are viable long after they were canned, or after the “expiration” of stamped dates.

For instance, a fascinating study published in the Journal of Food Science reported on canned food that was analyzed from the Steamboat Bertrand, which sank over 100 years before, in 1865. The findings? National Food Processors Association (NFPA) chemists detected no microbial growth. Furthermore, they determined that the foods were as safe to eat as when they had been canned over 100 years earlier.

The chemists added that while significant amounts of vitamins C and A were lost, protein levels remained high, and all calcium values “were comparable to today’s products.”

A prepper’s remedy for the loss of vitamins is, of course, to simply store and rotate multi-vitamins in his prepping supplies. That’s what I do.

Truthfully, these studies don’t surprise me. Proper canning creates a vacuum that prevents microorganisms and air from entering the jar. It is these that would otherwise contaminate the contents. As long as the seal is good, the contents should be good, which is why I’m comfortable eating a jar of stew from my pantry, even if I canned it 20 years before.

We have two All American pressure canners and use them to can all sorts of meats, stews, and vegetables. They are probably my most valued prepping item.

How To Determine Canned Food’s Safety

I pay no attention to those expiration dates. Instead, I look closely to ensure the seal hasn’t been compromised. Evidently authorities agree with this view. In a food safety fact sheet, Utah State University Food Safety Specialist, Brian Nummer wrote:

For emergency storage, canned foods in metal or jars will remain safe to consume as long as the seal has not been broken.

In yet another study, NFPA chemists also analyzed a 40-year-old can of corn found in the basement of a home in California. Again, the canning process had kept the corn safe from contaminants and from much nutrient loss. In addition, the chemists said the kernels looked and smelled like recently canned corn.

Canned Goods Good for Preppers

So as these scientific analyses show, canned foods are an excellent option for preppers. If all that’s true, when would you ever discard a can of food? It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be forced with the decision of whether or not to open a can that is in fact 40 years old. However, if it has been several years and you come across a can that got lost in the pantry, it should be fine to eat if its seal hasn’t been compromised, just as the above studies attest.

Dented Cans

But what if the can is dented? Just as many people have tremendous belief in expiration dates, they also were led to believe that dented cans should be avoided or even discarded. It turns out that’s not usually the case.

The primary concern over dented cans is the very unlikely (but remotely possible) risk of botulism contamination.  We will take a closer look at botulism in a bit. So if people are leery of dents due to the risk of botulism contamination, when are dents to be considered a problem?

While very small dents almost always present no problem, the more important issue is the location of the dent. A can with a sharp dent on either the top or side seam should probably be discarded, because seam dents can allow the introduction of harmful bacteria. The good news is that most dents occur harmlessly on the side. Unattractive? Yes. But unsafe? No. Even the USDA agrees with this point when they say:

If a can containing food has a small dent, but is otherwise in good shape, the food should be safe to eat. Discard deeply dented cans. A deep dent is one that you can lay your finger into. Deep dents often have sharp points. A sharp dent on either the top or side seam can damage the seam and allow bacteria to enter the can. Discard any can with a deep dent on any seam.

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  1. Yes, I was always wondering about that. My wife said I was crazy,(she was right) We would go every year and plop down a sizable amount of cash on canned and bottled goods and I would insist that she give them away when they got near their DATE. L.O.L. So now I know why I am so cash poor.GREAT ARTICLE!

  2. Grow what you eat, eat what you grow – for those who do not grow, substitute the word “buy.” Point being that it is important in times of extreme stress to retain what normalcy you can. By ensuring that your diet is not a gross departure from what your normal, everyday diet consists of, you are raising the odds against a weakened immune system and gastrointestinal problems. Moreover, it ensures that you rotate your stock and become more proficient year over year in growing and thriving on what you produce and preserve.

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