The surprising truth of canned food expiration dates

Canned, or tinned, food is shelf-stable and not at risk for easy spoilage. Unfortunately, food labels are super confusing, contributing to the United States food waste, where 52.4 million tons of food gets sent straight to the landfill, according to nonprofit organization ReFed. In fact, a 2016 study reports that "...the United States spends over $218 billion — 1.3 percent of GDP — growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten." In that spirit, it's time to learn when our canned food is really best, good, or gone off — and the truth might surprise you. 

"Best by" or "Sell by" dates are not actually FDA mandated (except for infant formula) and don't really have to "mean" anything (via Today). These are voluntary labels that manufacturers provide. It should be noted that these are not the same as expiration dates on deli food items or dairy. You don't want to mix those up. Canned foods, however, exist in a vacuum until they are opened. Experts generally agree that canned food is good for two years from processing — when you'll get peak flavor and texture. Canned food after this date should still be edible for quite some time, but the taste of the food can degrade with age as well as storage at sub-optimal temperatures (room temp is fine).

How to tell if canned food has gone bad

Instead of discarding your cans by the listed date on the side, look for signs that your can may have gone bad — no matter what the age (via Dummies). Canned food should still look like the food you purchased. For example, corn niblets in water should not look like cloudy creamed corn in sauce. Any extra mushiness, moldiness, or cloudiness is a sign your food has gone bad. An unpleasant smell is also an indicator of spoilage — but you probably didn't need us to tell you that. Large red flags include physical damage to the can, such as corrosion, bulging lids, or broken seals. 

Your internal danger signs should be flashing brightly if you open a standard canned product and it has any kind of bubbling spurting, oozing, or gassiness. It's a canned food, not a soda. If your canned food doesn't have any danger flags, you're probably okay, although that doesn't always mean food from older cans will taste good. Use your best judgement, but don't depend on that printed date on the product — your budget, and your planet, will thank you.