You always have loads of canned food stocked up in your kitchen, but you rarely break into your stash — and to be honest you don't know how long those suckers have been sitting there. Can you eat canned foods after the expiration date, or should you empty all of those old cans out of your pantry right now?
In the 2014 documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story , filmmakers Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin stocked their kitchen for six months with $20,000 of discarded foods. From diving in grocery store dumpsters to visiting produce sorting facilities where less attractive but undeniably edible fruits and vegetables were entering the waste stream, the two documentarians uncovered an unbelievable amount of edible food being thrown away for cosmetic or other non-safety related reasons. Add to that the fact that food safety labeling is often both a voluntary and a subjective system, and the amount of unnecessary food waste could make your head spin. Is it safe to eat canned foods past their expiration date?
The short answer is yes, most canned foods are definitely safe to eat after their expiration date, but there are some other details to consider before you go ahead and start cooking with that mystery can of tomatoes. First of all, there are two main camps of canned goods — highly acidic, and not. Highly acidic canned goods including citrus fruits and tomatoes last for about a year and a half in a cool, dark pantry. Pretty much all other canned goods will safely last up to five or six years in the same environment, which is longer than I've ever lived in one apartment by a lot, so basically forever.
Here are some other things to take note of when trying to decide whether a can is still ready for prime time.
1. The language of the date in question matters
If you think your canned soup might be from a long, long time ago, take a peek at the date on the can. Does it say "Sell by," "Best if used by," or the actual pack date in (and this is real) Julian calendar code? The sell by date is a suggestion to retailers and has absolutely no correlation to the safety of the can's contents. The best by date is a suggestion of peak freshness, but also isn't related to safety, and the packing date is just what it sounds like — which is, the beginning of the food's life rather than the end.
A lot of companies will actually choose a date halfway through the lifespan of the food itself just to ensure that you consume the food when it will taste its absolute best. So keep the one and a half and five year timelines in mind when checking dates.
2. Check for dents, bulges, leaks, and rust
If the can looks like it's been through any sort of trauma, it's probably best to just throw it out. Dents, bulges that move when you press them, signs of cracks, or rust can all be indicators that botulism has made its way into the food inside of the can. You do not want to contract botulism from a can of beans, so keep an eye out for these flaws.
Additionally, if the contents of the can start to ooze or, more dramatically, explode from the can when you break the seal, do not proceed and go get something slightly less contaminated from the grocery store.
3. Do you have something older that might still be good?
If you're trying to save money and not contribute to food waste, think like a restaurant and use the last in-first out food schedule. That means you should check your pantry for older cans that are still within their useful lifespan and use those first so that they don't go to waste. You will be surprised how many times you've purchased artichoke hearts "just in case."
If you have any doubts about whether the can of food that you're investigating is safe to eat, be on the safe side and save yourself exposure to a nasty neurotoxin, which would be way more intense than regular old food poisoning.
But, like Leo implored us at the Academy Awards, let's do what we can to save the planet and waste just a little bit less of the food that farmers work so hard to grow for us to enjoy.
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Images: Getty Images, Giphy