Everything You Need to Know About Those “Expiration Dates” on Your Food

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Have you ever wondered what the real expiration dates are for your pantry food? Have you ever wondered whether your food was safe to eat past the “expiration date?”

Fear not. There is no more need to throw away perfectly good food over a little date stamp.

The problem is – people are throwing canned or packaged goods away on a false perception that the date means expiration. In other words, they fear that the product could be spoiled or unsafe. More on that in a bit.

I visited someone once who was chucking nearly a hundred cans and boxes of food – right into the garbage, no joke. This person really believed that all the food had expired and was unsafe to eat. As though the food had already “gone off.”

I pleaded with the person that the food could go to someone hungry but they argued that a food bank would examine the dates and throw them away. If you see food banks throwing away expired cans – or even sealed packaged goods, please tell them that the USDA has recommended that people can still donate food that’s older than the stamped date. Even stores are allowed to sell food weeks and months beyond their “past” dates. (Source)


So, anyway, I did what anyone would do when they were assured that safe food is about to be senselessly wasted – I gathered all the food in big black Hefty bags and walked out of there like a reverse Santa Claus scenario.

We waste so much food.

Americans waste an average of $2,000 worth of food each year in some form or another. (Though I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who wastes nearly $200 of food each month!) Another source says Americans waste one pound of food a day, and that it takes 30 million acres of cropland to produce that food. It’s not just average Americans who are involved with food waste, however.

Much of our country’s food is wasted before it ever reaches our dinner tables.

One of the ways food is wasted is right in the field. An estimated 20% of crops never make it off the field – they rot. You may have heard about “ugly produce.” That’s warped looking produce that never makes it to the grocery store even though it’s perfectly good to eat. Thankfully, there are finally grocery stores popping up devoted to selling the “ugly” produce so that it doesn’t go to waste.

Can you believe the UN is pushing for people to eat crickets and maggots when we have all this perfectly good food that simply gets wasted? True story.

The Stamped Dates on Foods Are Estimated Guesses for Freshness

Did you know that expiration dates are only required by the FDA for infant formula? The USDA assures that manufacturers are providing dating as a way to help consumers decide food freshness and quality – it has nothing to do with product safety. Nada. Zip.

Real expiration dates are rarely found on canned goods.

It is only consumer perception that continues to drive a fear of eating food after its “past” date.

The dates on canned goods are a suggestion for quality. After all, if there was no date on the can at all, it could be 100 years old by the time you eat it and you’d never know.

All of that food that you have stashed away in your prepper pantry will most likely be delicious for a long time after the date you find stamped on the container.

What do the following terms mean on your food?

Here’s a quick guide to the dates you see stamped on your food.

  • Best if Used By/Best Before: An indication of best flavor and/quality. Again, this is not a safety date.
  • Sell-By: This date is for the store. It tells the store how long to display the product for sale and it’s for inventory management. Still not a safety date.
  • Use-By: This date is the last date recommended to use the product while at peak quality. Not a safety date except when it is used on infant formula.
  • Guaranteed Fresh: Just a date for the consumer to know when they should use up the product.

In nearly every case, you can continue using food – especially canned food – significantly past the date on the product since it has nothing to do with actual expiration. Some states require that milk and other perishables be sold before the expiration date.

According to the Canned Food Alliance,

…canned food (when kept at relatively stable temperatures) will remain at peak quality for at least two years after it’s been processed. They note that while food in cans “retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years,” its color and texture may change after that time. Many factors affect how long a food will stay edible in the can, but food kept at “moderate temperatures [75 degrees or below]” may last indefinitely.

But others believe that canned food lasts much longer, perhaps only losing negligible amounts of nutrition over the years. After all, the idea of canned food in the first place is to be non-perishable.

“Canned foods do not expire on a certain date. One cannot say that the canned food is good on one day and not good the next day. Canned foods are under a vacuum. The absence of oxygen helps to extend the shelf life of canned foods.” -Ron Giles, Quality Assurance Director of Goya Foods, Inc.

The un-safest thing about canned goods whether they are before or after their best-by dates is the Bisphenol A (BPA) that is used to line that metal of the can as a barrier between the metal and food. Although the food industry claims BPA is for product safety, recent research is starting to show that BPA is a hormone disruptor that is linked to obesity.

Here Are Some Real Food “Expiration” Times

Remember, expiration typically means spoilage to people. But these dates only represent the best quality. The food and drink on this list may still be perfectly fine after the dates listed. However, this will let you know when to rotate the food in your pantry. This short list should serve as general “eat by” date.

The times listed represent the length of time you can wait to eat something, past the printed date on the product.

  • Honey – Indefinite
  • Beans, dried – Indefinite
  • Peanut Butter – 1 year in pantry, if it’s natural then it only lasts 3 months in pantry and 6 months in fridge
  • Raw eggs in shell – 3 to 5 weeks
  • Coffee, ground  – 3-5 months in pantry
  • Coffee, whole bean – 6-9 months in pantry
  • Coffee, any type, frozen – 1-3 years (whole bean lasts longer)
  • Milk, frozen – 3 months
  • Dairy Alternatives – 7 – 10 days after opening
  • Bottled Juice – 7 – 10 days after opening, in pantry – 3-9 months
  • Nut butters – 3 months (cashew)  to 1 year (almond)
  • Pasta Sauce – 1-2 years in pantry, 7-10 days in fridge, opened
  • Cream sauces, commercially jarred – up to 12 months in pantry, 7-10 days opened in fridge
  • Pasta, dry packaged  – 1-2 years
  • Olive oil – 2 years, still safe but taste and quality could be affected
  • Olives, jar – 1-2 years in pantry, 3-4 months opened, in fridge
  • Cookies – 4 – 6 months
  • Beer – 6 months – 9 months in pantry. 6 months – 2 years in fridge.
  • Homemade bread – 3 days on counter, best to store in freezer.
  • Ice Cream – Up to 3 months, 4 months for sherbert
  • High-Acid Canned Foods like tomatoes, canned juices, pickles etc12 – 18 months
  • Canned Foods – 2 – 5 years or more
  • Bottled water – the water itself doesn’t expire, but the bottle will break down within 2 years.
  • Cheese – I’ve known people to store cheese in their fridge for months at a time. Our grandparents’ generation simply cut off any mold from the surface and continued eating the cheese. But it will sharpen with age, so maybe it’s a good idea to buy mild and let it age in your fridge.

General Rule – a lot of things last up to 2 years in a pantry, but liquids, sauces, and juices typically last only 7-10 days once they are opened and stored in a fridge. So saving that half-jar of pasta sauce for next month is not a good idea because you can’t see mold roots when they first begin.

#1 Tip – Create a meal plan to use up leftover portions to use in a different meal for that same week. That way, you never have to spend time wondering if it’s still safe to eat.

Obviously, if any cans are bloated, they need to be disposed of immediately since bloated cans are a distinctive sign of deadly botulism and other bacteria. Dents in cans may cause the barrier in the lining between the can and the food to break down, theoretically causing bacteria to grow. Try not to buy dented cans in the first place!

Never Throw Away Good Food Again

If you love the idea of frugally using up your foods – and doing it in style, then you’ll want to get acquainted with this site: Eat By Date

Look up by food or by shelf-life and check here before you chuck your food. It shows you how long the food will last beyond the printed date.

Also Read – The Truth About That Expiration Date on Your Vitamins and Medications

Bottom Line…

Friends don’t let friends throw away canned and packaged foods. It doesn’t belong in a garbage bin or a landfill because it can provide a truly hungry person with the calories they need to survive. If you see someone chucking perfectly good food – say something.

Do you eat the food in your pantry after the date stamped on it? Have your experiences been good or bad? Let us know in the comments below.


Meadow Clark

Meadow Clark

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  • Great article. I remember when in retail we would only pull pop when it separated…like orange crush etc. We also eat peanut butter that is 3 to 4 years old from BB date, coffee 5 plus years, Olives 4 years, pickles 4 plus years, pasta sauce 4 years etc. We just use our brains and forget much of the food industry nonsense. We store our products in a dark 60 to 70 deg. room. oh…and I forgot…pasta….we treat it almost like dried beans. If it is kept dry it lasts a very long time. We are as healthy as horses too. Yum Yum!!

  • I just opened a can of pineapple chunks that was 4 years past the sell by date, a few days ago. It wasn’t the freshest, but it didn’t have a metallic taste to it either. I’ve also used 5-6 year old curry paste recently, and even flour tortillas that I’ve forgotten about for over a year, still tasted fine.

    I’m sure I have more laying around the house somewhere.

    • oh on the flour tortillas youre braver than me lol, when I see them aging I fry them in peanut oil and the sprinkle a mixture of sugar and cinnamon while warm. They’re a sweet fix for old flour tortillas.

    • You’re certainly lucky with those pineapples. I heard a loud bang coming from the kitchen one day and while trying to figure out the source, discovered a can of pineapple slices (which was only a year or two old) had exploded, blowing the pop top type lid and some of its contents onto to bottom of the shelf above. The contents that remained in the can were black from decay. It’s not the first time that I’ve had canned fruit products explode. I surmised that the sugars must have fermented and caused enough gas buildup to split the seems. I’ve had the same thing happen with tomato products, especially tomato paste. But I luckily caught a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes before it blew. It had expanded to the size of a softball. That’s one mess I’m happy to have avoided.

  • We’ve been running an experiment now for over 15 years. About that time (15+years ago), one of our local grocery stores was selling black eyed canned peas for .08 cents per can, in early January. They had bought a BUNCH of it prepping for the Southern tradition of eating collards and black eyed peas on New Years.

    At .08 per can, we loaded our trunk. We just figured we’d just eat more of it for the next few years — we like black eyed peas. Turns out, we just got tired of eating them after a few months. So, it’s been 15+ years now, and we still have about 200 cans.

    Here’s the experiment: Every Thanksgiving we set out two bowls of black eyed peas. One of them comes from new cans, and the other bowl comes from our 15+ year old cans.

    To date, no one can tell the difference. There are a lot of guesses, but no one can say that the flavor or color of the old cans is any different fro the new cans. We get some flack from some family members (Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without the opinionated grumpy gusses…), but that’s for the audacity to put “OLD, DANGEROUS” food on the table, but if they didn’t gripe about that, they’d find something elase…

    We’ve got corn, peas, green beans — all around 6-8 years old. You simply cannot tell the difference.

    That having been said, you need to watch canned pineapple and canned tomatoes. Sometimes their acid eats right through the can. Even non-dented good looking cans. The pineapple is bad for this.

    So, that’s our experience for what its worth. We see something on sale, we buy a lot of it, and so far, have not seen any degradation in flavor or color.

  • Just opened a can of diced tomatoes to make chili. Pulled it off the pantry shelve and never gave it a look until after the chili was done and I was doing cleanup. It was then that I noticed they were five years past the date on the calendar! Nobody noticed any difference in taste and no one was sick. Just made soup last night with celery and carrots I had canned up 3 years ago and the soup was delicious and no one was sick. Those dates don’t mean anything!

      • Bzzzt! I put Celery in everything! Adds a little freshness to canned soups, etc. The tops/leaves are a great seasoning for chicken.
        I had an old can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee stuff. Had kind of a “metallic” taste… ;-(
        Added some celery and fresh grilled onions. But I Lived! In a SHTF It would probably taste GREAT!

  • Some good info. Thank you. I would like to add from experience. I have stored ground coffe in vacuumed sealed bags for up to 6 yrs past date. The flavored ones dont taste good after 3 years and the non flavored taste aged, like a deep flavor, some have an almost tobacco smell, but dont taste like tobacco. All are still about the same flavor as new up to the 3 year mark.

    Vitamin fortified rice, even vacuum sealed taste like medicine after just a few years.

    Stewed tomatoes go bad at their date or before unless they are original recipe, some lasted up to 8 months past date, but most only 6 months. All other types with onions and peppers and the like barely make it to date.

    I opened a can of Chunky vegetable soup 8 years past date and it smelled good and all color was retained, however, when I touched the veges they turned into complete mush. All texture was gone and I did not taste it.

    Most green beans are good up to a year past date. The old ones turn grayish green and the bad ones turn grayish green and slimy.

    Peas and corn loose there color at about their date, but are still edible a year later, they just loose flavor as time goes.

    Canned fruit is hit or miss. They are pretty much dated.

    Canned meats are also pretty good until the can bloats. They taste almost the same, even 6 months past date. I have had a few cans bulge before date. Always check for sour smell or taste and slimy feel with any canned food.

    Any spice that is old will have the same smell. They smell like their supposed to sort of, but there is a definate old dusty/musty smell that is undeniable, similar to all spices and herbs.

    I have eaten vacuumed sealed pasta 5 years past date with zero difference from new in texture or taste.

    Flavored Knorr noodles are good 2 years past date, but flavor does suffer and gets worse after 2 years. Instant mashed potatoes are still good 2 years past date.

    Dehydrated food, even when vacuumed sealed only lasts a couple years and is not very good reconstituted. Put it in a coffee grinder and add it to flour when making bread stuffs. Or dog treats, if you make your own.

    MRE’s are tasty for what they are, but very fattening. Eating them to rotate storage is not recommended unless you burn a lot of calories, they will put weight on you.

    All food is stored in a basement. Hope this helps.

  • True story. We put back some canned goods for the Y2K non-event. 10-11 years later in 2012 I found a can of condensed ‘Campbell’s Green Pea Soup in the cabinet. Had a BB date of about late 2001. I opened the can, checked it for color and smell; looked Ok to me; like a recent can of GP soup. Added water and heated. Could not tell ANY difference whatsoever.

    Also I believe it was a ship in the Great Lakes they found at about the 100 year mark with canned food. They brought up a selection and tried them, with lab tests. Although the were deemed “edible” the color and taste was somewhat off.
    ( Edmond Fitzgerald ?)

    Hope that may add to someone’s knowledge base.

  • As other posters, I used canned food well past expiration date without any issue. What I noticed is that not all cans are created equal. Some were perfect inside and outside, others showed some discoloration inside even before they were expired. That makes me think that at some point they would fail.

    Worse case I experienced, maybe due to a production problem, some sardines cans that started to rust on the outside well before the expiration date. They were stored with the other much older cans that were perfectly fine so I would rule out environmental problems.

    So, while no one should be scared of the expiration date, care should be taken examining the stored cans and using a sample of them periodically to make sure that they are still valuable. When SHTF you do not want to find out your precious storage is full of unsafe food.

  • My mother-in-law, who has since passed on, was a fervent user-upper of ALL food. She hated to see food thrown away, and when she eventually moved off the farm to an apartment building, she was aghast at seeing food in the dumpster after tenants moved out.
    One fine day, my wife and I visited her and she indicated she had a bunch of elk meat and if we wanted some, to take it. My wife asked if it was shot by Roger or Trevor, and she said it came from the dumpster. “Perfectly good meat!”, she said. We respectfully declined that goodwill bag!

  • Here is my experience with a couple of foods.

    I don’t worry about honey, though it crystalizes after a couple of months. All types, except the processed kind.

    White sugar – don’t worry about it. Highly processed. Just clumps depending on the weather. I store my brown sugar in the ‘fridge after opening. Don’t worry about that either.

    White flour – last indefinitely but can absorb odor so must be kept sealed, cool area and dry.

    Whole wheat flour – probably about 6 months I would try to eat it up. Oils get rancid I heard.

    Dried spaghetti can keep a long time. Maybe over a year or much longer but must be kept sealed so bugs don’t eat it.

    Canned good? I ate an Amy Organic canned soup two years after the expiration date. Tasted fine.

    Salt – no worries either. Just clumps in damp weather.

    Beans?? Don’t believe it last indefinitely. I have a lot of beans several years old. It is true. They LOOK like they keep long till you try to cook it. Old beans NEVER cook right. I have tried Slow Cooker and Pressure Cooker – nothing works. Even extended cooking times. Gritty beans. All of this even after soaking overnight or fast soak method.

    So, I would never buy beans more than you could eat in 6 months to one year. BTW, Safeway has an excellent recipe for split pea bean soup. Very delicious. 🙂

    • Not sure where you live, but here in Texas, flour will go rancid in about a year if not kept cool and properly sealed. I have rice and beans stored in 5 gallon buckets in mylar bags,they were stored 4+ years ago. I have to cook the beans in a pressure cooker, but the rice is still good cooked as usual. I had to toss home canned blackeyed peas as they were soured after 2 years in storage.Might have been because I cooked them with some ham. ( I have a dedicated room for storage,temp maintained at 70*) We are eating home canned chicken and ground beef that were canned 3-4 years ago. They taste great. I also have canned stews,soups,carrots,pinto beans and other veggies.I recently found round roast on sale ,cooked and canned some for storage. Holidays if we have left over turkey or ham it gets canned .I have had to toss store bought canned meats,mushrooms,canned milk,pineapple and tomato products as the cans swelled and/or leaked.

  • I had saved pasta over my refrigerator and it went bad due to bugs. The pasta had white spots which is a sign it has gone bad. I would recommend storing it in the freezer.

    Flour goes bad or rancid as does brown rice. Not sure if stored in the refrigerator.

    I have fruits and vegetables that are frozen and they are fine after many years.

    Canned food in glass lasts a long time, just watch the top metal lids that will start to rust.

    Our metal canned goods would last longer if the manufacturers would use cans with enameled insides. I mentioned this to Chicken of the Sea and they only recommended using the product within two years.

  • There are military mess halls all over the country who are guilty of a tremendous waste of food. Enough, that I’d wager our homeless could eat well on it, if only we could get it to them.

  • Nut butters – 3 months (cashew) to 1 year (almond)

    BULL-oney. I ran out of peanut butter in the house one evening and just had to have a sammich. I had a case of peanut butter stashed back in the shipping container, so I walked out with a flash light and grabbed a jar. This was late 2016. Got to the house, and looked at the date , April 2009 . Yes, 2009. I opened it, removed the seal. Smelled it, smelled like peanut butter, no oil on top, so I tasted it. Tasted just like peanut butter. I eventually ate the entire jar. That’s 7 years past the “best by ” date and it was stored in a non-climate controlled shipping container to boot.
    Ya want to see how far back stuff is still good, check out this cat’s videos


  • I have used canned products after the date (up to one years after), as long the can is not bulging. The product was a little runnier, but the taste was fine.

  • I couldn’t agree more. I eat really old can and dry grains on a regular basis and have never gotten sick from it. I live 3 hours round trip from grocery store as well as know dooms day could come any time and really stock my home with cans and other food.

    I’ve way more than had my fair share of bad luck in my life and even I have not gotten sick from old food.

    I do try and store any dry rice, noodles or other grains in strong plastic or metal containers due to ants and mice and the like.

  • Should we approach food stored in plastic containers differently? I have a few jars of store-bought peaches in plastic containers that are a year or so past the “enjoy by” date. Ive always been ok with using canned goods past there date, but plastic worries me.

  • I have stored food for many years past exp. date and the worst thing I have come across is and little
    dryer and sometimes a metallic taste but that was very rare and after 7 years past exp. date.
    The may lose some vitamins or nutrition value.

  • We buy a lot of our canned and packaged groceries (and some fresh and frozen) from a salvage grocery store in our area. Our pantry is stocked for a hurricane or pandemic situation most of the time. I check dates on items before we buy, then when taking them from the shelf for use. If a can is dented, it gets used first. If it starts to rust, it gets chucked. We recently cleaned out and reorganized the pantry. Results: 10 cans from the back of the shelf went in the box to go. I have used some of them already.
    Items soon to be “expired”, and those recently reached their expiration date, are on the front of the shelf to be used FIRST, along with the dented cans.

    We buy bread from the salvage store and put most of it in the freezer.

  • Good article, but please be aware, some foods are mishandled before we get them. I recently opened a can of GreenGiant asparagus. Now, I love canned asparagus. I popped one out and downed it, then plopped the rest in a bowl. Then I almost threw up because the asparagus was full of mold. ???? First I called my doctor, then I called the food company. The can was SUPPOSEDLY good until 6/23-this is 9/22 right now. The food company rep was sorta sorry-but these things happen, blah, blah. Well I again called the next day-at least that one offered me some tea and sympathy! Food poisoning is a serious thing, and I take my storage VERY seriously. I assume that this can-with all of its’ neighboring cans was exposed to very high heat, then cooled, then exposed to heat, etc. This can was not bulging or anything unusual. Needless to say, I am a little freaked out over anything canned-especially commercial. I’m investigating an expensive dehydrator, I am so freaked out. My advice; open the can, put it in a bowl, and examine the contents!

  • I see that eatbydate website says to use canned salmon within 6 to 8 months of the relevant date. Earlier this year I found that I had a few cans of salmon with an expiry date of 2017. There was nothing with it.

    • What a great idea! Can you tell us more? What form of C do you use? Like an unflavored powder? Any tips?

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