If you’re like most Americans, your cupboards contain an array of supplements. A 2018 survey showed that 75% of U.S. residents are consuming some sort of dietary supplement, whether it be a probiotic, fish oil or multivitamin.
You may spend a considerable amount of time deciding what type of supplements to take, what brands you want and where to shop for them. Perhaps you’ve already built up your own collection. But have you ever stopped to think about how long those supplements last? Do vitamins ever expire? And if so, is it safe to consume them beyond the product’s expiration dates?
We surveyed experts to find out what you should know:
Vitamins do expire, but not in the same way as, say, your leftovers.
Generally speaking, vitamins and supplements do expire, but it’s not viewed in the same way as when food expires. Expiration dates for food are put into place for public safety, as many perishable foods become harmful after they expire.
But according to Jessie Hawkins, director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences, who trains professionals on dietary supplement science, vitamins and dietary supplements don’t usually go bad in the same way, due to the preparation processes.
“They do not typically contain perishable ingredients,” Hawkins said.
Charlotte Traas, director of education and training for vitamin company New Chapter, Inc., explained that vitamins are made up of nutrients. The reason they expire isn’t because they go rancid or develop harmful bacteria, the way some foods do. “It’s because they experience nutrient degradation or breakdown,” Traas said.
So essentially the concern with many expired supplements and vitamins is that they won’t be as effective as they once were.
Erin Stokes, medical director at MegaFood supplement company, added that in the vitamin world, “the expiration date is the date through which the product should be guaranteed to contain the amounts listed on the supplement facts label.”
You’re basically wasting your time if you do take an expired vitamin.
Typically, the shelf life for something like a multivitamin is around two years. Robert Dadd, the in-house master herbalist for supplement company Flora Health, said you’re probably OK to take vitamins after the use-by date. However, he noted, you are potentially losing a lot of the product benefits along the way.
“Because we don’t do testing past the best before dates, we can’t guarantee the potency or quality at that point,” he said.
But Traas said to err on the side of caution, suggesting that it’s best to avoid taking a post-date supplement if you can.
“From a safety standpoint, I would never tell someone to take an expired product, mostly because you don’t know the circumstances on how the product was stored or if it came into contact with any contaminants,” she explained.
She pointed out that moisture, mold and temperature variation can all cause a product to degrade overtime and thus become potentially harmful.
“If you’re going to invest the time, energy and money into taking a vitamin, taking one that is formulated for your body to use, and is still within its expiration, is the best way to go,” Traas added.
“The most expensive vitamin you will take is the one that doesn’t work … the likelihood of you feeling a difference goes down dramatically with expired products.”
And while you may save some money by taking expired products, Traas said she typically follows the adage “you get what you pay for.”
“While it probably won’t be too risky, it won’t be as efficacious,” she said of taking an older vitamin. However, she noted, “the most expensive vitamin you will take is the one that doesn’t work, and a good multivitamin should make you feel a difference. The likelihood of you feeling a difference goes down dramatically with expired products.”
The type of vitamin matters as well when you’re looking at expirations.
Things that that need to be refrigerated, like probiotics and liquids, are definitely best to toss out after the expiration date has passed, said Cynthia Marie LaBonte, a chemist and owner of Newport Herbal Formulas in Newport, Rhode Island.
“Fish oils or any liquid cap has a hard line as to its expiration date and that expiration date should be heeded, as we check expiration dates on nut butters and vegetable oils,” she said, noting that fish oil can go rancid if used past the suggested date.
For powder supplements, heat, humidity, light and air are what will degrade potency over time, Dadd said. He noted that following storage directions on the bottle will help ensure the product stays effective. The same advice goes for supplements like gummy or chewable vitamins, which absorb more moisture naturally than regular pills. This means they tend to go bad faster.
Traas added that improper vitamin storage can sometimes even negate an expiration date.
“Let’s take protein powder for instance. You open it up, use it, and forget about it in your car after the gym. Your car heats up and then you blast the air. Moisture ensues and bam, you’ve got mold … and that can happen within the expiration date,” Traas said.
To avoid the need to use old vitamins altogether, Hawkins recommends purchasing vitamins and supplements in smaller quantities so that they are always consumed fresh to provide maximum benefit.
Generally, it’s best to follow one simple rule: If it doesn’t look or smell OK, throw it away, said Simon Greenberg, a Food and Drug Administration regulatory consultant who works with pharmaceutical companies on matters such as product testing, labeling and expiration dates.
“If the seal has been broken for too long, throw it away. If you doubt the products’ safety, throw it away,” Greenberg explained. “Things that need to be refrigerated, I would not suggest to consume a week after the expiration date.”
Bottom line: It’s not totally worth taking an expired vitamin or any supplement that seems questionable. You probably won’t reap the true benefits, anyway.