Printed on a consumable’s packaging, expiration dates 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.
It is relatively easy to identify foods in a grocery store that might spoil if not consumed right away. 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 supplement.
Drug Expiry Dates
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).
- 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.
- Thus, 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. Exceptions include:
- 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.
Supplement Expiry Dates
Although mandated for over-the-counter and prescription medications, the FDA does not require supplements to have expiration dates. Regardless, many quality manufacturers voluntarily list expiration dates to express a time frame a product is guaranteed to retain its highest level of potency.
A majority of supplements continue to hold their nutritional value years past their expiration date, especially when stored appropriately. 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 an expired supplement, 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 was properly stored) should be as good as new.