Here’s What the Dates on your Canned Foods really Mean (and what you should follow instead)

Keeping canned goods in the kitchen cabinet can be very useful in times of need as they become our last option when all produce expires. However, knowing which types of canned foods to choose and which to avoid is very important.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, certain cans provide unsafe contents. On their website they say:

“Discard heavily rusted cans. Cans that are heavily rusted can have tiny holes in them, allowing bacteria to enter. Surface rust that you can remove by rubbing with your finger or a paper towel is not serious. You can keep these canned foods. If you open the cans and there is any rust inside, do not eat the food. Rust (oxidized iron) is not safe to eat.

Moreover, 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.”

What Makes Canned Food Unsafe to Consume?

Contamination is the only thing that can affect the safety of canned goods, as the inside of a sealed can is sterile and no air or microbes may affect the food. Even though decay affects the nutritional value of its contents, there is no harmful effect whatsoever.

However, not all food reacts the same way to its canned incarceration. For instance, low-acid foods, such as meats or mushrooms, usually receive a zap of sterilizing heat before canning. On the other hand, high-acid foods, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits, don’t support food poisoning bacteria and the germs shortly die in such environment. Therefore, the higher the acid, the safer the contents.

A compromised can is the major cause of concern and if a can is leaking you should dispose of it right away. If a food from a recently opened can smells bad, don’t eat it at any cost, regardless of any date stamped on its lid.

So What Should I Know about Expirations Dates?

Knowing where they come from is the first thing you need to know about expiration dates. For instance, the federal government has no interest in dating food, unless you are buying infant formula. It is also important to mention that dates on infant formula are concerning nutritional quality, not safety.

There are two different types of expiration dates which manufacturers provide. The first one is “sell by date” and a “use by” or “best by” date:

“Sell by” date:  This date indicates when the product should be removed from the shelf and it shows when the product itself is at peak quality. In case the supermarket doesn’t remove the product until this date, it can be sued in case something goes wrong, although the product is safe. This is the reason behind throwing away perfectly good food and selling product at hugely discounted prices.

“Use by” date:  This date shows the consumer of how long the product will be at its peak quality.  After this date the food is still good to eat but the cookies may not be as crisp or the fruit salad as bright.

How Do the Manufacturers Determine These Dates?

Instead of rules and regulations from any government agency, there are test kitchens and lab tests which are funded by the manufacturers of the products.

In other words, there are no ways to know when a can is removed from supermarket shelf how strict these tests have been before any date stamped on the can.

According to Bill Murray, “It’s more of a guideline than a rule.” Therefore, the date may come from a formula for production that was used years ago.

So What Should You Do With Your Canned Foods After the Expiration Date?

1. Eat Up

The food is fine to eat, especially if a reasonable amount of time has passed from the date stamped on the lid. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, high-acid canned goods should be fine for 18 months and everything else has a shelf life of 5 years.

Most Americans dispose of cans even though they are fine to eat. It is estimated that this is over $1,000 worth of eats per family, most of it still fine to consume. Besides being unnecessary bite out of the personal budget, the fossil fuels and resources that were used to produce the food are also worth mentioning.

2. Keep Them Stored

Needless to say canned foods don’t last forever and you have to eat them at some point. To maximize their shelf you should minimize the temperature fluctuations. The best would be to keep them in an environment of between 50 and 70 degrees.

Moreover, avoid moisture as it can begin deterioration of aluminum of tin cans and cause mold and bacteria. Other thing that negatively affects the shelf life of canned foods is the sunlight.

3. Compost

Composting is a good idea as the food is still good to eat. Even if it contains some chemicals or preservatives, microbes make short work of these and any small contaminants.

4. Donate

Donating is another good idea but there are a couple of things you need to consider. First, food banks don’t take damaged and bulging cans while some of them don’t accept anything beyond the date stamped on the lid.

5. Sell

This business model is an amazing idea as it creates nutritious and affordable quick-eat meal from all the “expired” food in grocery stores that can be obtained for free or with deep discounts. This idea was presented by Dough Rauch and it is called “Daily Table”.

6. Recycle

Simply open the can, wash them out, and recycle the metal. The potential botulinum toxin can be dangerous if it contacts the skin, but when the cans are emptied and rinsed the metal containers can be safely recycled.

7. Toss Them

Last but not least, you can simply toss them when there is no other option. It is recommended to double up on the garbage bags to make sure that the cans don’t break open on their way to the landfill.