November 11, 2020
By Neal S. Shera
*Disclaimer* People react differently, so exercise individual judgement about whether to consume something or not. When in doubt please just throw it out.
Being prepared requires a significant investment of both time and money. There is no way around that set of facts. Everyone must make choices on how to best utilize their available funding pool to get the maximum return. Near the top of everyone’s list is food. Yet the types of food to acquire are where things start to diverge. Not everyone has the same proportions of time and money. A great number of people can’t grow significant amounts of their own food nor buy pallets of freeze-dried emergency supplies. For most the canned food aisle at their local grocery store is their most prolific and economic option. Now most people try to be vigilant in rotating their canned good supplies. What about if you fail to rotate your food and end up with a bunch going past their suggested eat-by date? Are they still good? What will they taste like? To find out exactly what happens inside out of date canned goods I set up an experiment to show you what to expect.
Now the canned goods used for this endeavor were all originally store bought. Many were generic brands. All were stored together within the controlled environment of your average household basement at an ambient temperature of 68 degrees F. The samples included the usual canned fruits and vegetables as well as soup, chili and canned meats of all types. The newest can was about 2 years beyond expiration while the oldest cans were eight years. Many were consumed cold while others were used to make simple meals.
Now yes, there is literature available on how long past those dates many canned goods should be kept, but what is it actually like to cook and eat what’s inside? If anyone is interested in a thorough review of required amounts of food needed to be stored for basic subsistence I recommend looking up fellow Be Ready! Contributor Todd Jagerborg’s video series on his YouTube channel Odin’s Wolf Survival.
Now we actually need to start with the cans themselves that the food is stored in because they are not all equal. The experiment was conducted using 15 ounce, or smaller, cans in almost all cases, canned ham being packaged differently. Smaller cans are easier to carry if one has to worry about that. Another reason to using the smaller 15 ounce cans is they offer greater flexibility for consumption. The larger options like #10 cans may seem more economical, but how do you store the contents after opening?
There are two common variations of 15 ounce cans commonly used for fruits and vegetables. One is the expected internal metal finish and the other has a lining, usually white. This difference will not change the longevity of the food but it will make the eating experience quite different. As a control, a can of corn of each type was consumed while within the stamped expiration date. There was no discernible difference, but once the selected cans went beyond that date things changed.
The most obvious one was taste. The unlined cans had a metallic aftertaste present that varied in intensity depending on the type of vegetable. Corn and carrots were on the strong side while peas and green beans were less noticeable. The aftertaste was also more prevalent if the liquid contents were consumed. I wouldn’t recommend dumping out that water as it will go a long way to supplementing that stockpile. You never know how long you will have an alternate source of drinkable water. Just be sure to consider a long-term seasoning to offset that taste.
Another difference is expired unlined cans will have some of its contents sticking to the sides of the cans from some chemical interaction. There is not much in supporting literature about what is happening, but it seems harmless. Also, while some cans may come with their own peel-able lid, keep in mind this type of top isn’t as robust as more traditional cans so store them more carefully.
Canned fruits and vegetables that have high innate water and/or sugar content themselves will not last as long, or be anywhere approaching enjoyable, after expiration. Canned peaches, pears and apricots lose all shape and flavor and look like something out of a horror film. Upon opening these cans the odor of fermentation was present. This happens soon after expiration and only canned strawberries were somewhat edible when expired two years.
The canned carrots in this experiment showed how much of a difference a year made. Two years past expiration was still very edible but three years was not. Canned spinach would also make a poor choice as it did not hold up well. Samples tested were like eating green dyed, water soaked paper. The first thing to look for is the color change of the can’s contents. Color change is the first sign something is happening. Then there is the smell of these types of foods. Most of these choices should be totally avoided, but if you must take one as an option, then stick with carrots.
More traditional canned vegetables like peas, green beans and potatoes are a different experience. Cans up to six years beyond their expiration date were still very edible, except for the previously mentioned aftertaste. These types of foods would be excellent choices for storage. There was indeed one can in the experiment that was still sealed, but something had obviously gone very wrong. These foods will decay differently inside a sealed can so in poor lighting smell isn’t going to necessarily give you an adequate warning. Always visually verify before eating.
Canned soups, stews, and chili all behave differently when stored for a long time. The most thin broth soups had more noticeable aftertastes but were otherwise fine. Canned stews and cream based soups had a significant separation in the suspension, so don’t be alarmed. Nothing bad has happened, and like an old paint can, you should give everything a good shaking before opening. All of these products had their solid contents settle on the bottom of the cans. Chili and canned bean varieties are another story. Over time the beans will absorb surrounding fluid and turn to mush in the can. Upon opening they look like one solid technicolored mass. Again, unless the can is damaged and oxygen is introduced smell is not the best means to determine if the food has rotted. So visually check for a significant color change.
As for canned meats the various choices will pose a significant dilemma. The biggest factor in deciding which canned food to buy for long term storage, is whether they are packed in water or not. This is especially true for canned fish and chicken. Avoid choosing meat canned in water if possible. The reason for this is the water will react to the more delicate structure of fish and poultry. The contents of an old can of tuna just three years past its date was broken down and had an awful smell. You could hardly pull the meat out with a fork.
Cans or packages of fish packed in oil held up significantly better. A can of sardines in olive oil over four years past its date was quite tasty. The sardines still held their shape perfectly. In fact they were one of the more pleasant things to eat. So look for fish canned in oil or brine if that is your preferred meat. Chicken, beef and ham products stored in natural juices or some other low moisture process hold up much better. Some of the oldest samples tested were a large supply of canned hams. These were eight years out of date yet proved perfectly fine. One could eat a few days from a single can of ham without any spoilage, if it was kept in a sealed plastic bag and cool area without refrigeration. Smell is always the best indicator for meat so if something has spoiled your nose will tell you.
As far as what to have along with these canned goods, or how to prepare them, is up to personal preference. Often I would mix a can of vegetables with a can of soup to mask the aftertaste found in the former. This was consumed both hot and cold. A container of some dry spice mixture was a good companion to all of these dishes. A few times I concocted a basic stew by mixing canned vegetables and meat into a pot. I just dumped all the contents of each can into the pot.
If one was heating a can of vegetables and just adding some meat, or heating meat by itself, a good option to have around is a container of ghee. Ghee is clarified butter that has had all of the milk protein and water removed, leaving behind only the milk fat. This is a shelf stable product which doesn’t require refrigeration after opening. It’s best to avoid liquid oils and seasonings for long-term storage. Crackers, or some other unleavened bread, would be good company to any cold serving. If served hot, then some rice, pasta or other suitable grain could be added.
It is hoped this experiment provides a useful guide about what to expect from store bought canned supplies stored past their use-by date. Again, avoid canned fruits and meats packed in water. It’s important to store them in a temperature stable environment to get the longest storage time from them. One should keep a sizable stash of dry spice handy to mask inevitable changes to the flavor. Also, use all of a can’s contents, and don’t let anything go to waste. While out of date canned goods may not be the ideal food, they can provide needed nutrition in an emergency.
This article originally appeared in the 2020 Be Ready! Pandemic Special Edition. You can purchase a copy by visiting this link.