How Long Does Canned Food Really Last? 

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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 last?”

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.

Remember that to safely can a variety of foods at home you will need a pressure canner. There is no amount of increased time in a hot water bath canner that can make up for the lack of a pressure canner. Properly canned food means that you have eliminated the factors that contribute to botulism, a potentially fatal form of food poisoning.

Always check a canning jar for any defects before using for home canning. Not only can defects lead to food spoilage later on, but it can also interfere with the total canning process and result in a broken jar and wasted food. When you are canning meat, it really stinks to open up your pressure canner and discovered a broken jar and pounds of spoiled meat with glass shards contaminating it.

Consider a Food Rotation System

A good method for managing home canned food is to adopt 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 long 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 vegetables and meats make 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 lives between the two is 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 a 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 storage 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 Type Shelf Life After Opening / Cooking
Rice and dried starches 2 years 3-4 days w/refrigeration
Low Acid Canned Goods (including most meats) 3-5 years 3-4 days w/refrigeration
High Acid Goods (tomatoes, tropical fruits, krauts, etc…) 1-2 years 1 week w/refrigeration
Jerked Meats (commercial) 1 year N/A
Dry/hard Porks 6 weeks 3 weeks refrigerated
MREs 120 °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 Pouches 1-2 years 4 days w/refrigeration
Dried Egg Whites 12 – 16 months Reconstituted 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 live, 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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