The Expiration Date Myth

October 6, 2014 by | 7 Comments

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’m a huge fan of freeze-dried food because it is cost-effective, easy to prepare and has a ridiculously long shelf-life, but I don’t think that should be the only item in your food storage.

Canned food is an inexpensive food source that will last longer than you will. Now I know many of you are probably shaking your heads thinking “bullshit, there is an expiration date printed right on the can.”

It’s true, there is an expiration date, but to be more accurate, it is a “sell by” date, not an expiration date.

After that date the texture of canned food will begin to break down, but the contents will remain safe to eat and nutritious.

According to analysis by chemists at the National Food Processors Association of canned foods retrieved from the steamboat Bertrand, which sank in the Missouri River in 1865, canned food will last more than 100 years.

In 1974, chemists at the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) analyzed the products for bacterial contamination and nutrient value. Although the food had lost its fresh smell and appearance, the NFPA chemists detected no microbial growth and determined that the foods were as safe to eat as when they had been canned more than 100 years earlier.

The nutrient values varied depending upon the product and nutrient. NFPA chemists Janet Dudek and Edgar Elkins report that significant amounts of vitamins C and A were lost. But protein levels remained high, and all calcium values “were comparable to today’s products.”

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, Dudek says, the kernels looked and smelled like recently canned corn.

The fact that this food remained nutritionally complete and palatable after all these years was no doubt, due in part to the cool temperature of the river water it sat in, but another  canned food shelf life study conducted by the U.S. Army revealed that canned meats, vegetables, and jam were in an excellent state of preservation after 46 years.

Another study published by the Can Manufacturers Institute analyzed canned food from an 1820 expedition led by Sir William Edward Parry to explore the Northwest Passage. Two of the cans from this voyage survived uneaten and were kept in a museum until 1938, when researchers removed the canned meat for inspection. After nearly 100 years, scientists found the meat was nutritionally sound and considered safe for consumption.

As long as a can has not been ruptured, its contents are safe for eating indefinitely.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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  • Orrin M. Knutson says:

    As a peace officer, back in the 1980’s we were searching for an armed killer in the remote high plains of N.E.Colorado and S.E. Nebraska. My horse mounted team came on an old abandon “sod house”. There was a separate “root cellar”, in which we found shelves of home canned foods. Some had ruptured or had swollen lids, but most appeared as fresh and the day they were canned by the homesteader’s who likely abandoned the place during the “dust bowl era” taking only as much as their Model T could carry.

  • CrisisMaven says:

    Actually, even saying it is a “sell-by” date is misleading. Or would you buy anything a few days off its “expiration date”? Certainly not. It is actually, with the exception of all but the least enduring products, a supply-chain and logistics information “tag” to make sure no one inadvertently leaves the “older” produce in storage and displays the more recent deliveries for sale first. Many of the preserves that say e.g. “three years” might as well say “thirty” for that matter.

  • I don’t even bother looking at the expiration dates. In fact I’m going to do a youtube eating of old expired meat.

    • Hiawatha says:

      Very good article and comments, I was hoping there would be information on “coded” expiration dates, those cans and jars with a bunch of letters and numbers that you can’t make out the date by trying to decipher the code, but according to this it all should be ok to eat, with only lost nutrients and possibly soggy. I’ve had old evaporated milk before and had made gravy with it and it didn’t get us sick, I didn’t realize it was out of date by almost one year! if I had known I would have poured it out. I just thought I didn’t shake the can long enough to mix it, it came out watery then thick and lumpy when I poured it into a glass to mix with water and I didn’t even look at the date on the can until after we had ate! I didn’t tell my family because I knew they would be “grossed” out. The gravy was good it didn’t taste sour. I was just hoping none of us would get sick and we didn’t. I bought a bottle of juice the other day that was out of date by 3 months, I was going to test it first to see if it tasted good and make sure it didn’t make me sick, well my oldest son drank a couple of glasses of it before I could test it…he didn’t get sick…but said it tasted sour…he thought it was just because it was apple/cranberry mixed. I don’t think I will be buying outdated bottled juices.

  • ClayFace says:

    Does this include MREs that have a 5 year shelf life?

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