Can You Safely Eat Canned Food Without Cooking It (The Guide)

The canning of food products has been a prime method of food preservation since the early 1800s. While simple and effective, this process has evolved over the past 200 years to better ensure the safety of consumers.

However, despite these valiant efforts, there are still a handful of cases of a deadly form of food poisoning called botulism that arise each year. This leads many to question “Can you eat canned food without heating it?” We can give you the answer!

The United States requires all food manufacturers to either cook or pickle food prior to canning. This means that you can safely eat canned food without heating, under certain conditions. 

These include proper storage at specific temperatures and damage-free containers. However, this does not include products canned at home.

Canning Kills Most Bacteria

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, canning food “is a method of preserving where food is placed in airtight, vacuum-sealed containers and heat-processed at 250 °F (121 °C). This destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes.

As the food cools, a vacuum seal is formed that prevents any new bacteria from getting in.” This allows you to eat canned foods safely without heating.

In fact, when you think about it, there are a plethora of food types that the public regularly eats out of a can without thinking twice about cooking them! Pineapples, pears, peaches, mandarin oranges, olives, and even tuna are all consumed at room temperature every single day.

Conversely, chili and soups are normally served at a warm temperature. This leads to the assumption that the canned food requires heating in order to eat it, which is not the case. 

Canned Fish

However, while a small dent or blemish on the can may not seem like a big deal, if the seal becomes broken, dangerous bacteria can begin to grow.

Appearance Matters 

They say to never judge a book by its cover. Nonetheless, when it comes to your preserved foods, looks can make all the difference. Small dents on the side likely won’t cause any problems. Conversely, blemishes along the rim and deep dents warrant the need to discard the food. 

“A deep dent is one that you can lay your finger into. Deep dents often have sharp points. A sharp dent on either the top or side seam can damage the seam and allow bacteria to enter the can.”

This means that before opening the container, inspect the top and sides, looking for signs of damage. Moreover, “don’t purchase bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans.”

Damage Can Lead To Rare Cases Of Botulism

While rare, botulism is an illness that stems from “improperly home-canned, preserved, or fermented foods”. Unfortunately, these “can provide the right conditions for the bacteria [Clostridium botulinum] to make the toxin.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “low-acid foods are the most common sources of botulism linked to home canning. These foods have a pH level greater than 4.6. Low-acid foods include most vegetables (including asparagus, green beans, beets, corn, and potatoes), some fruits (including some tomatoes and figs), milk, all meats, fish, and other seafood.”

This doesn’t mean that you should not enjoy those preserved dishes! It just indicates that sometimes it is better to err on the side of caution. On the off chance that bacteria has started to grow, it is best to cook these items. Why? “You cannot see, smell, or taste the toxin, but taking even a small taste of food containing it can be deadly.” 

Thankfully, the CDC has found that “despite its extreme potency, botulinum toxin is easily destroyed. Heating to an internal temperature of 85°C for at least 5 minutes will decontaminate affected food or drink.” 

Safe Storage Recommendations For Canned Foods

Proper storage is paramount. This allows you to eat canned food without heating it. Food safety experts at the University of Minnesota have found that you should keep canned products in a “cool, clean, dry place where temperatures are below 85 F (between 50-70 F is good)”. 

Most importantly, you should never freeze canned food. When any food gets below freezing, it expands.

When this occurs in a vacuum-sealed container, the pressure can cause the seal to become broken. This can lead to the introduction of bacteria. 

Similarly, high temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher can also lead to contamination. “The risk of spoilage jumps sharply as storage temperatures rise. In fact, canned goods designed for use in the tropics are specially manufactured [to withstand extreme heat].”

Pile of Canned Goods

Therefore, avoid shelves near or above the stove or around any other heat source. Unless temperature controlled, the garage and basement are also places to steer clear of when storing food.

Storage Time Frames

The best advice for canned product usage is to place your newest items at the back of the shelf, just like grocery stores do. This ensures that the first products in, are also the first products out. Moreover, food safety specialists at Clemson University note that despite the date on the label, certain foods should be utilized prior to their best by date. 

For example, consumers need to eat highly acidic canned foods within 12 to 18 months of purchase. These can include “juices (apple, orange, tomato, etc.), tomatoes, grapefruit, apple products, mixed fruit, berries, pickles, sauerkraut, and vinegar-based products.” 

In contrast, foods with a high pH value (low acidity), will last for much longer periods of time. Items like “meat and poultry products, vegetable soups (except tomato), spaghetti products, potatoes, corn, carrots, beans, beets, peas [and] pumpkins” can safely span two to five years. 

Lastly, due to the collection of ingredients in canned soups, it is also best to use those products within six months to a year of purchase.

Proper Heating Techniques For Canned Foods

Professionally Canned Products

If you do choose to heat your food before eating, it is always best to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. For those individuals wanting to cook the food in the can, there are a few details to keep in mind.

In the past, metal food cans were susceptible to corrosion. This lead manufacturers to line them with bisphenol A, otherwise known as BPA.

Thankfully, “pushed by consumer concern, manufacturers have moved to replace BPA with alternative chemicals. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, [as of 2020] about 95 percent of food cans are made without BPA-based linings, using a variety of other coatings, or polymers.”

While much safer than in years past, heating food in this type of storage container can still lead to some of these chemicals leaching into the food. Thus, it is best to grab a bowl or pot for your soups and chili.

However, if cooking tools are not available, make sure to remove the paper or plastic packaging on the exterior of the can. Then, puncture a hole in the top prior to heating. 

Home Canned Products

The canning of fresh foods has become more popular again in recent years. Unfortunately, research indicates that “untrained friends or relatives are the primary source of instructions for many of today’s home canners…rather than tested recipes from universities, the USDA and the manufacturers of home canning equipment”. Due to this, there is a higher prevalence of contamination and it can even cause botulism.

With fewer safeguards being utilized in the home canning process, the USDA recommends that boiling high-acid foods for ten minutes and low-acid foods for 20 minutes on the stovetop. This will kill any potential bacteria that may be lurking. Moreover, consumers need to discard these items within a year, no matter what the food type. This includes products sold at farmers’ markets and even varieties that you made personally.

However, canned products that are high is salt or sugar like beans and James tend to have a slightly longer shelf life. This is due to the preservation qualities of these condiments.

Signs Of Spoilage

Canned foods are safe to eat without heating. This is due to the boiling that occurs in the canning process.

It is also what allows you to consume them straight out of the can or in a bowl! However, it is important to always visually inspect the container as well as the actual food product prior to consumption.

Safe storage practices and containers that are intact normally yield a safe product. Nevertheless, when in doubt, throw it out! Signs of spoiled food include a strange smell, discoloration of the food and the presence of dried food on the outside of the can.

Final Thoughts

Remember that all foods, no matter how you choose to preserve them, are perishable at some point. Moreover, the flavors and textures will deteriorate over time.

Cooking these products can help with this issue. It will also kill any bacteria that is present in the food.

However, if you want to maintain the original consistency, freezing fresh foods is another fantastic alternative! This will diminish the shelf life though.

Lastly, the organization called Feeding America has found that a whopping $108 billion pounds of food is thrown out each year in the United States. The easiest way to remedy this problem is to go through your pantry and fridge every few weeks and use the products that are on the verge of going bad. Help to prevent this food waste problem from perpetuating and check your canned products regularly!

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