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Shelf Life of Foods

While “expiration” dates are rarely found on canned foods, most canned food products have a “use by” date stamped on the top or bottom of the can. Ever wonder what that actually means? In determining the shelf life of foods, their are two dates to consider:

“Use by” date

This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality, the last day a product will maintain its optimum freshness, flavor, and texture. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. Beyond this date, the product is still edible. 

“Sell by” date

The labeling “sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This is basically a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. “Sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it is still edible afterwards.


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As a general ‘rule of thumb’, as long as the can is intact, not rusty and not bulging, the food is probably okay. In general, many agree that canned foods have a conservative shelf life of (at least) two years from the date of processing.

It is generally considered that canned food retains its safety and (diminishing) nutritional value well beyond two years, while it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture.

Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile.

Food safety is not an issue for properly canned products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures (75° F and below). Canned food as old as 100 years has been found in sunken ships and it has still been micro-biologically safe!

No one will recommend keeping canned food for 100 years, however if the can is intact, not dented or bulging, it is likely edible.

shelf life of foods

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic says Americans are prematurely throwing out food, largely because of confusion over what expiration dates actually mean.

Most consumers mistakenly believe that expiration dates on food indicate how safe the food is to consume, when these dates actually aren’t related to the risk of food poisoning or food borne illness.

The dates solely indicate freshness, and are used by manufacturers to convey when the product is at its peak. That means the food does not expire in the sense of becoming inedible.

For un-refrigerated foods, there may be no difference in taste or quality, and expired foods won’t necessarily make people sick.

But according to the new analysis, words like “use by” and “sell by” are used so inconsistently that they contribute to widespread misinterpretation — and waste — by consumers. More than 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely, and 40% of the U.S. food supply is tossed–unused–every year because of food dating.

Eggs, for example, can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase, even though the “use by” date is much earlier. A box of mac-and-cheese stamped with a “use by” date of March 2013 can still be enjoyed on March 2014, most likely with no noticeable changes in quality.

Because food dating was never about public health, there is no national regulation over the use of the dates. The only federally required and regulated food dating involves infant formula, since the nutrients in formula lose their potency as time goes on.

When in doubt, cook it (which you probably would do anyway).

I urge you to visit to determine how long your favorite food or beverage will stay safe and tasty.

Here is a free pdf download of Shelf Stable Recipes for you.