News & Events

Canning - A Malaysian Consumer's Perspective

Author: Dr. Adrian Choo Cheng Yong (University Putra Malaysia)

As a Malaysian regular consumer of goods, the first thing that comes across my mind when talking about canning is the normal everyday food packaged in metal cans that we see in supermarkets. The usual foods that I expect to see are things such as tuna, sardine, baked beans, fruits, carbonated drinks etc. When talking to an expert, I was quite surprised to note that the term canning does not necessarily mean sealing in a metal or tin container but in any hermetically sealed containers made of glass, metals etc. As a regular consumer, I will only discuss about metal cans in this article. The impression that can foods give me as a consumer is food that can last for a long time if the can is not damaged or breached in any way. This brings about the mindset that we can clearly see in popular culture where in the event of a disaster, the first that the people are advised to do is to stock up on canned foods. Based on this belief, I always have in mind a picture of an underground bunker with separate rooms where one of them is chock full of canned food from ground to ceiling.

I have always believed that canned food can last for at least 5-10 years before spoilage occurs. Imagine to my dismay that when asked to write this article, my little survey of canned foods found that the average shelf life as recommended by manufacturers was two to three years! That quickly dispelled any notion of a ten year survival strategy where my primary source of food would be canned products. However, upon a further research, I discovered that there are canned foods that are safe to consume even after five to ten years of being manufactured. That fact gave me a little more hope in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

The common advice that we usually hear when it comes to purchasing canned foods is to check and see if there is any rust or dents on the can. If these exist, it could mean that the integrity of the can is suspect. Therefore, as a consumer, I avoid cans with these ‘defects’ like the plague. It still mortifies me to see stores and supermarkets selling dented cans at heavily discounted prices. This leads me to question whether there is a law preventing the sale of such cans. Upon further inspection and a little internet research, I could not find any law that prevents that. After a little more research, it seems that the general advice of not buying dented cans could be wrong.

Clostridium botulinum is the most feared bacteria that can induce Botulism. This sickness is rare but can be fatal when ingested and without proper treatment immediately. Clostridium botulinum can grow in cans where there is a breach or from improperly or damaged canned foods. Therefore, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the advice is to not taste or eat foods from containers that are leaking, have bulges or are swollen, look damaged or cracked, or seem abnormal in appearance. Do not use products that spurt liquid or foam when the container is opened. I could not find any source that stated that dented can foods are dangerous. Could it be that this is a myth after all?

Ease of opening is another thought that comes into my mind when talking about canned foods. It ranges from easy to open cans such as those found for carbonated drinks (ring-pulls) to freaking-difficult-to-open-without-a-tool cans such those found for foods such as soups, sardines and baked beans. It has always been an enigma to me as to why manufacturers would not use ring-pulls on all cans? Is it a cost issue or is it a safety issue? I would hazard to guess that it has to do with cost as adding a ring-pull would result in an additional manufacturing step and therefore an increase in cost. Due to the careless nature of human beings, I am certain that there are few among us who have not endured the pain of receiving cuts while trying to open a can with a can opener or at least know of someone who did. I was amazed to discover that a can opener was not invented at the same time as metal cans were developed. Historically, people had to smash the cans open or had to go through the cumbersome process of using sharp objects such as axes and knives to pry the cans open. I shudder to think of the injuries that could be had while trying to open a can with an axe. Little wonder, with the advent of the can opener, the sale of canned foods skyrocketed.

As a Malaysian, we are encouraged to recycle unused cans. Again, the first thing that comes to mind is aluminum cans holding drinks that we always see being shown whenever there is a recycling campaign or advertisement. What happens to the other types of cans? I found out that these cans are recyclable as well but I’m guessing again aluminum is given the priority as they are a highly sought after metal. While there is a large initiative taken by various authorities and businesses to encourage recycling, I do wonder if there is a joint effort by the canning industry in Malaysia in encouraging this. Even better, is it plausible for a joint company to be set-up to ensure that the supply of metal from recycled cans is consistent and readily available? I am not an economist but it does seem that the idea might have some merit. In this day and age where environmental issues are so prevalent, collaboration like this might send out a message that the canning industry does care and is doing its part for the environment.

As a scientist, to me, it is obvious that canning has improved in various ways since its inception some 200 years ago. Technological advances have allowed for safer, faster and more economical processes in canning. However, I am sure the industry is still looking for ways to improve upon the current technology. I was at a food exhibition a couple of years ago and my interest was piqued by self-heating cans. Apparently, it is not a new technology but is gaining ground in recent years. For those who don’t know, self-heating cans work as its name implies whereby the food in the can is heated up when a mechanism is triggered in the can. The typical self-heating can is made of two layers where the inner layer contains the food and the outer layer contains chemicals that when a mechanism is triggered, two chemicals are mixed and the resulting reaction produces heat. Self-heating cans are still not widely popular and the reason for its slow growth is of course cost. It would be interesting to see what the future holds for the canning industry. Will there be near-indestructible cans? Will there be cans that are almost 100% environmentally friendly? Is it possible to have cans that keep its contents fresh for a hundred years? Of course these should come with an acceptable production cost.