How Long Does Canned Food Really Last? 

One of the biggest chores that preppers face is the accumulation of an emergency food supply. Prepping is not a new adventure. Many cultures have lived a prepping lifestyle. The Mayan culture is one such people who could survive and grow a large empire thanks to their innovative means of storing foods. The Mayans had a method of storing sweet potatoes where the food would last for upwards of ten years.

It was their insurance against drought and famine. Food security is certainly not new, but many of us in the modern world prepare for times when our plentiful bounties fade to slim pickings. In this blog, we address the question, “How long does canned food really last?”

Canned Food and Its’ Definition

There are many types of canned food, and the meaning of “canned” becomes confusing.

Home Canned Foods – When you can your food its shelf life depends on the type of food that you can. According to the USDA [1], home canned foods have a shelf stability of about a year. The short recommendation of home canned food does not mean that you should bypass home canning as a means of stocking up for lean times. It means that you must be more conscious of how you plan and use food so that you use up canned food within a year.

Consider a Food Rotation System

A good method for managing home canned food is to adapt a system that rotates food in such a way that you use the oldest foods first. We refer to this method as First In – First Out. It means that the first items that you put into your food closet are the first items that you use. Food rotation is an excellent tool for prepping, and it helps to keep the quality of food at its highest while minimizing the risk of food spoilage and food-borne illnesses such as botulism.

It is possible, and many people have lived to tell about the longer shelf life of home-canned foods. Still, in an emergency food situation, it is best to be safe rather than risk illness due to food spoilage. Oddly, the USDA has different standards for commercially canned foods.

Special Note: If you are looking for some high quality non-GMO canned meats, I cannot speak highly enough of Wertz Canned Meats available here.

Commercially Canned Foods

The USDA [1] divides commercially canned food into two categories:

  1. Food that is highly acidic
  2. Food that is low acidic

Highly acidic foods include citrus juice, fruit such as apples, peaches, and pears, pickled foods, foods with vinegar, and tomato-based foods such as salsa, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, etc. These foods have a recommended shelf life of just 12-18 months according to the USDA. [1]. Once opened the USDA recommends discarding highly acidic and commercially canned food after the seventh day of refrigeration.

Low Acidic Foods

Low acidic foods have a much longer shelf life. These are foods that are not tomato- or citrus-based and included commercially canned meats, poultry, soups, and many vegetables such as corn, peas, and squash. These types of foods can last for upwards of five years if stored properly. The USDA recommends a shelf life of 2-5 years.

Commercially canned food makes an excellent addition to emergency food stores, especially if you use a food rotation system. Highly acidic foods can bolster your home canned food supply since they have a similar shelf life. Remember, though that home canned foods have a recommended shelf life of just a year, whereas commercially canned foods can last for a year to 18-months.

What we can infer from the USDA that low acidic and commercially canned foods have the capacity to be the central pillar of an emergency food store with a five-year shelf life, especially the proper management of the food stores.

Freeze Dried Prepper Foods

Freeze dried and commercially prepared foods designed for the longest shelf life can last from 10-30 years depending on the brand and food type. The benefit of freeze dried food is that it maintains most of its flavor and texture when rehydrated properly. To prepare, most freeze-dried foods simply requires the addition of cold water, such as for freeze dried milk, or hot water for meals that we enjoy warm.

Freeze dried foods are an outstanding way to add variety to an emergency food store. Thanks to the growing demands of the prepper community there are many food choices available from high-quality emergency food supplies such as:

In fact, companies supply quality emergency food for the prepper community (you can see the BDS top list of survival food brands here)

Beef JerkyDried and Jerked Food Shelf Life

Dried and jerked foods, such as meats, are generally shelf stable, according to the FDA. They do not have a long shelf life. Commercially prepared jerky has a recommended shelf life of about a year. Home prepared jerky has a 1-2-month shelf life according to the USDA.

The reason for the vast difference in shelf live between the two is the that the process of making jerky varies at home, whereas it is regulated and inspected on the commercial level.

This is not to say that home-made jerky spoils after only two months in a bag. It is, however, pointing out that there are many ways to make jerky at home and not all those methods create a product with a long shelf life. If you plan to make jerky at home as part of your emergency food stores, choose a process that dries the food completely. [2]

A good tip for storing dried foods with shorter shelf life is to freeze the food after drying occurs. Freezing will increase the shelf life and decrease the risk of spoilage.

Dried foods have been around for millennia. The art of canning food dates to around 1750 as a means of preventing military food rations from spoiling. [3]

Some dried foods have an almost indefinite shelf life. Dried corn, according to FEMA when properly stored has an indefinite shelf life. Specially packaged foods such as powdered milk in nitrogen-packed cans also last indefinitely. [4]

Food StorageEmergency Food Storage

Emergency food stores need to be stored properly for them to have the longest shelf life possible. Heat shortens the life of canned foods. The rule of thumb is to keep canned food in a dark location, out of direct sunlight, and where it will remain dry and cool. [4]

Rust and Metal Cans

Food cans that are metal rust over time. This is one of the reasons that the location of your food store needs to remain dry. Surface rust is usually not a problem; however, if there are dents in the metal or if the can is excessively rusted, or if it is swollen then throw it out as it is unsafe to consume.

Storage of Dried Foods

When it comes to food stores that are not canned, such as dry beans or powdered milk, make sure that you store them in a sealed bag and then placed in a sealed container or a second bag. Once opened, these foods must be used quickly. A good tip for extending the life of dried foods such as powdered milk is to double wrap them and then freeze them. Doing so allows you to use the food over an extended period before it spoils.

Boxed foods such as dried fruit should be carefully repackaged by opening the box and removing the sealed inner bag. Place the unopened inner bag into a jar with a screw top lid or a plastic container that allows easy visual inspection of the food without opening the outer container.

Conditions that Spoil Food

Food that becomes wet should be discarded because water is a prime source of contamination. Dried grains, flours should be kept in the freezer in a double sealed bag or container. All flours and many grains have insect eggs in them. If left at room temperature, the eggs will hatch and cause the food source to spoil.

Sure, weevils are like free protein, but do you really want your survival to be due to protein rich weevil flour? If so, you can buy flour made from crickets. It’s great with chicken. All kidding aside, they really do sell cricket flour.

Food storage is a prime concern for anyone who stores emergency food. By understanding how long foods keep, helps preppers find better ways to manage their emergency supplies of food and make more informed decisions about how to prepare their emergency food stores.

Food Stability Chart

Here’s another look for reference:

Food TypeShelf LifeAfter Opening / Cooking
Rice and dried starches2 years3-4 days w/refrigeration
Low Acid Canned Goods (including most meats)3-5 years3-4 days w/refrigeration
High Acid Goods (tomatoes, tropical fruits, krauts, etc...)1-2 years1 week w/refrigeration
Jerked Meats (commercial)1 yearN/A
Dry/hard Porks6 weeks3 weeks refrigerated
MREs120 °F, 1 month
100 °F, 1 1/2 years
90 °F, 2 1/2 years
80 °F, 4 years
70 °F, 4 1/2 years
60 °F, 7 years
Unclear / depends on specific MRE
Seafood Pouches1-2 years4 days w/refrigeration
Dried Egg Whites12 - 16 monthsReconstituted eggs should be used immediately (within 2-3 hours)

Final Word

With the long life of most commercially canned food and with the use of a good food rotation system, you can stock your emergency food cabinet with foods that you use. Commercially canned food is usually much less expensive than freeze-dried meals, and with a little planning, preppers can achieve the same or better results while cutting expenses and stocking up on quality, nutritious emergency foods.

David is an active prepper and freelance writer. He lives in rural Northern California in the shadow of an active volcano. He hunts and fishes as a means of providing. He brings a science background to his writing and discusses botany, biology, geology, and weather as they apply to living, growing your own food, and surviving. He is a master gardener and understands food production, storage, and preserving. He lives five miles down a single-lane road and he deals with power outages, wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, and crazy pot growers, raiders, medical emergencies, law enforcement and the potential of that volcano.

Deeper Learning:

[1] Shelf-Stable Food Safety – USDA – Scroll down to find the chart

[2] How Long Does Beef Jerky Stay Good – Jerkyholic

[3] How Canning Was Invented, and How It Changed the Way We Eat – Kitchn

[4] Food and Water in an Emergency – FEMA

* Home Canning Guide: Learn How to Can Your Own Food – Mother Earth News

* Selecting, Preparing and Canning Meat – National Center for Home Food Preservation


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Is your canned food safe to eat? Be safe and avoid illness due to food spoilage - know how long does canned food last BEFORE an emergency food situation

  1. I have been a Prepper since Y2K (1999) my family regularly consumes commercially canned food that are ten or more years old. I have NEVER found a bad can! These are straight off the shelves of Walmart or my local supermarket. This applies to acid/non-acid based foods. For instance, Pizza sauce is a staple of mine because it flavors almost any canned meats. I had a can of Pizza sauce dated “2010” this morning to flavor some Yoders canned hot dogs; it was FINE.

    Carefully look over the can to see if it is either swelled up or sunken in. If the can looks normal, Put the spike of your can opener through the lid while you watch and listen carefully for any “hissing” or “gurgling” sounds. If not, cut the top off the can and carefully smell the contents. Stick a fork into the contents and stir; if everything looks and smells fine, you’re good to go!

    1. I use ‘out of date canned veggies all the time. I just used 2 cans of mushrooms dated 1-17-10. they were great looked great tasted great. I have has very few out of date cans that were actually bad, they were dented and had a bad smell and frothy water on top.

  2. While the FDA may recommend certain things I rarely pay much attention to them. i am eating home caned foods at least 3 years old with no problems in taste or texture. I don’t eat very much store canned foods short of some cane beans once in a while so can’t comment on those.

  3. I cooked up a pouch of Bear Creek soup that had expired 7 years previously, meaning it had been packaged several years before that, so was actually about 10 years old. I hadn’t repackaged it or stored it in another container. It tasted just fine!

  4. I think today’s shelf life on canned food is malarky meant to get us to buy more canned food. When I went to Vietnam as a 19-year-old Marine in 1966, the date on our C-ration canned food was 1944 (two years before I was born). In late 1966 and early 1967, the dates were 1945 and 1946. In the spring of 1967, the date was finally catching up — 1966. In other words, we didn’t get sick eating canned food older than we were.

    1. The Ball Blue Book recommends 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit for storing home canned foods, which I would think likely to be an ideal range for commercially canned foods as well.

  5. I am among those that have been using outdated, store bought canned goods for a very long time and they are fine. I just opened a can from 2009 and it was fine. Of course, if a can is dented or bulging, I toss it. I also, grow and can my own foods. Cans do not let in light. My glass jars do. However, foods canned in glass jars would seem to me to be able to last for many years. I have eaten peaches that the top part of the jar had turned brown but they were fine. The jar was just forgotten in the back and glad I found it. What about those mountain cabins that people come across in a snowstorm, find canned goods that are very old and they eat them and live thru it?

  6. The article didn’t answer the question it posed: How long does canned food really last.
    It just cited a few FDA recommendations which obviously are going to err on the very safe side.
    Thanks to the replies of several who actually answered the “really” part.

  7. Dried Grains and flours do not need to be kept in the freezer (although that is certainly one way to store them if you have the freezer space); instead you can successfully store them in sealed glass canning jars or sealed mylar bags with Oxygen absorbers inside the jars and/or mylar bags. Shelf-life for dried grains and flours stored this way will vary depending on the type of grain or flour. For example, whole wheat flour has a shorter shelf life than does white flour, while whole wheat berries have a longer shelf-life than either type of flour.

  8. I don’t see the point of storing any food that would either be better off in a freezer or that should be refrigerated after opening. After all, we’re storing food for emergency purposes, and most emergencies are accompanied by lack of electricity. So all that food that requires freezing or refrigerating would be worthless.

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