Those expired cans are good far longer than you think...

By Tamara Gane
July 15, 2021
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Most of us don't organize our pantry as often as we should, but when we do, we nearly always have something in common–the discovery of expired food. Whether it's a can of soup or a forgotten can of cranberry sauce, you might be tempted to throw them away. Not so fast! According to the USDA, shelf-stable foods are safe to eat indefinitely and you can eat them well past their expiration date. So what do those dates even mean if they don't indicate the food has gone bad? To cut through the confusion, we consulted with the experts to find out how long canned food really lasts.

What do expiration dates really mean?

According to Kimberly Baker, PhD., RD, LD Director, Food Systems and Safety Program Team (Cooperative Extension) at Clemson University, the expiration dates and best-by dates we see on cans of food don't indicate when the food will spoil or go bad. Manufactured canned goods are still safe to eat after that time. There is a catch, however. Baker says, "the further you get from the expiration date the more quality of the product may be lost." So, although you can still eat that can of soup, the color, taste, and texture might be affected.

There are exceptions, though. Baker is quick to point out that if the can is dented, especially along the seam, or shows any sign of bulging or rust, it could be a sign of spoiling or botulism. This is potentially dangerous so such cans should be discarded to be safe.

The best way to find out if an undamaged can is still palatable is simply to open it up to taste, smell, and examine the contents. Heather Moon, PR Manager of the Atlanta Community Food Bank says you should never eat anything with mold, fungus, or off odors. She quips, "when in doubt, throw it out."

Canned Food
Credit: Getty Images

Can you still donate expired food?

Moon says the Atlanta Community Food Bank does accept donations of expired food. However, since expired foods can diminish in quality, it's always a good idea to check with your local food bank or food pantry beforehand, especially if your canned goods have been expired for a significant amount of time.

How long do home-canned goods last?

Foods canned at home do not have an expiration date so it's always a good idea to mark the container with the date the foods were canned. Baker says, "we suggest consumers eat these foods within 12-18 months for best quality. If these foods have been canned following a science-based method, they will be safe after this time frame, but may notice quality factoring beginning to be lost."

How long does canned food really last?

We've already established that in most cases, canned goods are safe to eat indefinitely, however, no one wants to eat a can of tuna that's turned mushy since it's past its prime. To help consumers determine if canned goods will still be palatable, the Atlanta Community Food Bank recommends the following:

Canned Fruits
High acid canned goods such as canned fruits, including tomatoes, should be eaten within 1-2 years past their expiration date.

Canned Vegetables, Meats, and Soups
Low acid canned goods like vegetables, canned meats, and soups should be eaten within 2-3 years past their expiration date.

Shelf-stable Milk
Evaporated milk, condensed milk, and other shelf-stable milk should be used within a year of their expiration date. This applies to powdered milk as well.