Those ‘sell by’ dates for expired supplements and/or foods have little to do with safety and more to do with reputation. Let me explain.
Printed on a consumable’s packaging, the dates on expired supplements may or may not be an important indicator for evaluating consumption safety. Expiration dates are necessary for determining when it is safe to buy, cook, and consume perishable foods like poultry; however, they may not be as vital for assessing the value of an herbal supplement. Before tossing your nutraceuticals in the trash, be sure to recognize the meaning and validity behind that expiry date.
Most medications don’t exactly spoil, but they might become less effective if the active ingredients break down. Hence, the lines become blurry when assessing the effectiveness and safety of an ‘expired’ drug or expired supplements. Passed in 1979, U.S. law requires drug manufacturers to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug. Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a military-requested study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don’t necessarily mean they’re ineffective immediately after they “expire” — just that there’s no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable, explains Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System.
With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. The study found that 90 percent of over 100 drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter) were safe and effective 15 years after the expiration date. Therefore the expiry date doesn’t necessarily indicate when a medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe.
According to a Harvard University publication, expired drugs are generally safe to take – even those that expired years ago.
- Epinephrine (such as in an Epi-Pen)
- Liquid antibiotics
- Blood products
Barring the medications listed above, placing a medication in a cool and dry place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years. However, manufacturers will not make recommendations about the stability of drugs past the original expiration date due to legal and liability reasons. In addition, once the original container has been opened, the original expiration date (or hope of outlasting that date) is no longer reliable.
What You Should Know About Expired Supplements
Although mandated for over-the-counter and prescription medications, the FDA does not require supplements to have expiration dates. Vitamins don’t go “bad,” nor do they become toxic or poisonous. At this time, there haven’t been any documented cases of illness or death resulting from expired vitamins. Regardless, many quality manufacturers voluntarily list expiration dates to express a time frame a product is guaranteed to retain its highest level of potency.
The typical shelf life for vitamins is two years. But this can vary, depending on the type of vitamin and the conditions it’s exposed to. When stored correctly, vitamins in tablet form often retain their potency for several years. However, each supplement’s shelf life will vary depending on product efficacy, quality of raw materials, and exposure to light, humidity, and warm temperatures. It is normal for an herbal product to slowly break down with age, but most experts approximate that efficacy begins to diminish about two years following the expiry date. Of course, this extended longevity assumes the following:
- The packaging has not been opened.
- The packaging has been stored in a cool, dark location.
In addition, the following supplements break down more readily and will lose potency more quickly:
- Vitamin B – Vitamin B should be consumed by its expiration date.
- Enzymes – Enzymes slowly weaken with age, remaining potent for about one year past the expiration date.
- Amino Acids – Amino acid supplements slowly weaken with age, remaining potent for about one to two years past the expiration date.
- Fish Oils – Highly perishable, fish oil supplements should be free of heavy metals and pesticides and manufactured, stored, and bottled properly to prevent rancidity. Most fish oil supplements need to be refrigerated and will likely spoil approximately three months after their expiration date.
- Probiotics – Because probiotic supplements contain live organisms, they are typically refrigerated. Most probiotic supplements lose potency approximately three months after their expiration date.
- Liquid Supplements – Liquid supplements slowly weaken with age, losing their efficacy about one year past the expiration date.
Unless it falls into one of the categories listed above, taking a recently expired supplement may be just as valuable as taking one that was just produced. When deciding whether to use or dispose of expired supplements, it is important to realize that it is not dangerous (like using an expired Epi-Pen to prevent anaphylactic shock could be). Although an herbal supplement that has passed two years of its expiry is likely to be less potent, one that is just a couple of months beyond the date printed on its packaging (as long as it is unopened and properly stored) should be as good as new.
What’s the Deal on Expired Foods?
It is relatively easy to identify foods in a grocery store that might spoil if not consumed right away. Here’s the short answer: Those ‘sell by’ dates are there to protect the reputation of the food. They have very little to do with food safety. If you’re worried whether food is still OK to eat, just smell it.
One of the places that knows most about the shelf life of food is a scientific establishment in Livermore, Calif., called the National Food Lab. At the NFL, they put food on shelves for days, weeks, or even years, to see how it holds up.
Sometimes, they’ll try to accelerate the process with 90-degree heat and high humidity.
And then, from time to time, they’ll take some of the food — whether it’s bagged salad greens, breakfast cereal, or fruit juice — off the shelf and place it in front of a highly trained panel of experts who check the taste, smell, and texture.
“You would think that everybody can taste and smell food, but some of us are much better at it than others,” says Jena Roberts, vice president for business development at the NFL. The lab has 40 of these food tasters on staff. “They are the most fit people in the group,’ says Roberts. ‘Because they don’t eat the food. They expectorate it. Which is a fancy college word for spit it in a cup.”
The experts give the food grades, in numbers. The numbers go down as the food gets older. The bread gets stale. Salad dressings can start to taste rancid.
John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, says the companies that sell this food take a look at those grades and decide where they will draw the line, to protect the reputation of their products.
“If the product was designed, let’s say, to be a 7 when it was fresh, you may choose that at 6.2, it’s gotten to the point where [you] don’t want it to be on the market anymore,” he says.
“If it’s 6.0, would most people still find it reasonably good? Absolutely,” he says. “But companies want people to taste their products as best they can at the optimum because that’s how they maintain their business and their market shares.”
This is all organized and carried out by food companies; there’s no federal law that requires dates on any food except for infant formula, although some states do require sell-by dates on milk or meat.
Still, these dates don’t really tell you anything about whether food is safe.
According to Ruff, most products are safe to eat long after their expiration date. In fact, even meat or milk that’s clearly starting to spoil is not necessarily dangerous. “Very often, you won’t eat it because of the smell, and you probably won’t like the taste, but in a lot of cases, it’s unlikely to cause you illness,” he says.
That’s because it’s not the food that sat on the shelf too long that makes you sick, Ruff says. It’s the food that got contaminated with salmonella or listeria bacteria, or disease-causing strains of E. coli. And that food might not smell bad as it might have arrived in the store only yesterday.
“In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue,” Ruff says.
Canned food, in particular, can stay safe for a really long time. In 1974, scientists at the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C., got their hands on several old cans of food.
Janet Dudek, now semi-retired and living in Vienna, Va., was among the scientists who analyzed this old food. Her assignment was a can of corn, vintage 1934, that was found in someone’s basement in California.
When they opened the can, Dudek says, the contents looked and smelled pretty much like ordinary canned corn. Analysis showed that it had most of the usual complement of nutrients — although there were lower levels of a few, such as vitamin C.
Results were similar for century-old canned oysters, tomatoes, and red peppers in cans recovered from a sunken steamboat, buried in river silt near Omaha, Neb.
Dudek says, as far as she knows, nobody actually tasted this food. That just wasn’t done, she says. But they probably could have. “It would have been safe to eat if the can itself maintained its integrity,” she says.
When food in supermarkets passes its sell-by date, though, it gets swept off the shelves. Often, it’s donated to food banks. Sometimes it’s auctioned off.
But if you discover such food in your pantry at home, there’s really no reason to throw it out. Ruff says you should just sniff the meat and milk. If it smells funny, go ahead and toss it.