Do Vitamins and Supplements Expire? What You Need to Know
For most of us, it's become a habit. When purchasing something consumable, such as food or over-the-counter (OTC) medications, we often first check for an expiration date. Fresh fruit, for example, has a finite shelf life — a fact that will become undeniably apparent in due time. But do vitamins and supplements expire?
Supplements and Expiration Dates
What sort of products actually fall under the heading "dietary supplement?" According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary supplements are products (other than tobacco) whose intended use is to supplement a person's diet. The FDA requires a supplement to bear or contain:
- A vitamin or mineral
- An herb or other botanical
- An amino acid
- A supplemental dietary substance intended to increase the total dietary intake
- A metabolite, extract, concentrate, constituent, or combination of these ingredients
The FDA does not require expiration dates to be included on the labels of dietary supplements. This information is allowed on the label if the manufacturer can provide valid data showing the information is not false or misleading.
Do Supplements Expire?
Whether labeling is required or not, the question remains: Do supplements expire? The short answer is "yes and no."
Vitamins and supplements don't expire in the same sense that a banana or a head of lettuce becomes inedible. Rather than becoming unsafe to consume, vitamins and supplements lose their potency. The ingredients in OTC vitamins break down slowly, so they become less potent over time.
Is the loss of potency the equivalent of foods "going bad?" If you consume a cheeseburger that's rancid with a putrid odor you can smell three blocks away, you'll probably feel the effects of food poisoning soon enough. If, however, you take a multivitamin or other dietary supplement that's a month or more past its expiration date, or beyond its "best by" or "use by" dates, you may not get the full dose as it's listed on the label because of decreased potency. But you won't be making a trip to the local emergency clinic with severe food-induced gastroenteritis.
Signs a Supplement Has "Gone Bad"
There's no simple way to determine the level of potency remaining in a supplement that's past its expiration date. However, it's a good idea to look it over well before taking it, just to be on the safe side. Any discoloration or unusual smell signifies the supplement isn't something you want to consume. If there is visible mold or if the pill or capsule feels damp, discard it along with the rest of the bottle it came from.
Special attention needs to be paid to chewable and gummy vitamins and supplements. These have fillers that make them more enjoyable to take, but these same additives make them more likely to absorb moisture. This means they're prone to breaking down faster than pills and tablets. Gummies also have a limited temperature range they can tolerate before they melt.
Shelf Life of Specific Vitamins and Supplements
How long a vitamin or supplement can sit on your shelf and still be safe can vary, depending on the specific substance. Here are a few examples:
- Vitamin C. This vitamin is vulnerable to the environment in which it sits. Specifically, vitamin C absorbs some of the relative humidity in the surrounding air. This causes it to lose potency. If improperly packaged, or if you're frequently opening the container to remove a pill, the vitamin breaks down more quickly.
- Vitamin K. This vitamin will degrade more rapidly when combined in a multivitamin with minerals.
- Thiamin. This is one of the more unstable B vitamins. It is more susceptible to the moisture in the hair, so it is best kept away from humid surroundings.
The best rule of thumb is to consider a multivitamin or combined vitamin supplement only good as long as the most vulnerable of its ingredients.
Probiotics and Liquid Supplements
Probiotics are a popular dietary supplement. The friendly bacteria found in probiotic foods like yogurt and sauerkraut are examples. The benefits that we get from probiotics come from the fact that they are live microorganisms. This also means they won't last forever on the shelf. Probiotics usually have an expiration date or a "use by" date, around a year from manufacture. They can become inactive and thus ineffective before that time passes. Proper storage and handling play a large part in the longevity of probiotics.
Liquid supplements will gradually lose their potency over time. As a general rule, they will maintain their effectiveness for approximately one year past the expiration date.
How to Store Supplements Properly
When storing supplements and medications, it's important to consider environmental factors like humidity, sunlight, and even air. Each of these elements can reduce the potency of the supplement or medication or hasten the breakdown of their composition.
To maintain the potency of your supplements and vitamins, here are some tips for properly storing them:
- Store at room temperature between 47 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep in a dark location to protect from sunlight.
- Avoid refrigerator storage, as this will expose your vitamins and supplements to excess moisture levels.
- Don't store them in the bathroom. The humidity from the shower may cause damage to your supply.
- Keep them in original packaging when possible.
- If cabinets are glass and get direct sunlight, don't store them in the kitchen.
If you have to dispose of out-of-date supplements, make certain you do it properly.
How to Dispose of Vitamins and Supplements
When it comes time to dispose of expired supplements and vitamins, you can't go wrong if you follow the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
- Take pills out of the original container.
- Put pills in a disposable container or bag with coffee grounds, cat litter, or whatever undesirable substance you have. This discourages pets and children from investigating.
- Seal the bag or close up the container.
- Dispose of the container or bag in the trash.
- Don't flush expired vitamins down the toilet.
Vitamins and supplements have a job to do, and they do it well. They help keep us on our game, so make certain you're taking the time to keep your supplements and vitamins at the top of their game. Check your expiration dates and act accordingly.
Need to replace some out-of-date vitamins or supplements? Check out the Tiger Fitness Top 40 for what you need.