Demystifying Expiration Dates: Is It Safe to Use Medicine and Food Beyond Their Expiration Date?

Man wearing glasses looking at a medication bottle.

We’ve all been there. Standing, staring into our pantry, cabinet or fridge trying to decide if we risk eating something that’s just past the expiration date. Same for medication. Is taking that newly-expired aspirin really a problem? Or what about those “best if used by…” dates? Confused? We feel you!

Let’s face it, food and medication can be expensive so you don’t want to waste it but you also want to be safe in what you consume. We’ll outline what to know so you can be more confident when faced with making decisions about what to keep and what to toss.

Pssst! If you’re looking for good food that isn’t expensive while trying to save money, check out our blog, 7 Nutritious Foods That Won’t Break the Bank

Understanding Expiration Dates

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety & Inspection Service, manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates on items are not an indicator of the product’s safety to consume but instead are to be used regarding quality. Other than infant formula these dates aren’t required by Federal law.

The Difference: “Best If Used By” vs. Expiration Dates etc.

You may have noticed various date wordings on different products like “best if used by,” “sell by,” or “use by.” The two most common ones: “best if used by” and actual expiration dates are as follows:

“Best If Used By/Before”: This date refers to the manufacturer’s recommendation for when the product is at its peak quality or flavor. Consuming the product after this date doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe, but it might not taste as fresh or be as effective as it would have been before. Generally, “best if used by/before” dates are more applicable to food products than medicine.

“Expires On”: The expiration date indicates the manufacturer’s estimation of when the product may no longer be safe to consume or use. It’s based on factors like the ingredients staying stable and when things may begin to reduce in being effective or even degrade. Always be careful with medicines that have passed their expiration dates as their effectiveness and safety may be compromised. Your health and safety is not worth the risk.

You may also see the following on products per the UDSA’s guidelines:

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale it has nothing to do with whether it’s safe or not to consume.  
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality and freshness. It has nothing to do with whether you should purchase the product or whether it’s safe or not to consume.

Medicine Beyond the Expiration Date

When it comes to expired medicine the general rule is to be cautious and not use them. Medicines can lose potency over time meaning they may become less effective in treating your condition. Also, certain expired medications can undergo chemical changes which can potentially be dangerous. It’s always best to consult a healthcare professional or pharmacist for guidance on expired medications and safe disposal methods.

Food Beyond the Expiration Date

For pantry food (shelf-stable food) the USDA says most are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods can last for years as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies, chips, etc.) will be safe past the “best by” date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor.

For fresh food, use common sense. If something looks spoiled or smells do not eat it and get rid of it. Your health is far more important so don’t risk it.

You may want to check out the Food Industry Association’s FoodKeeper website which is a database that gives guidance on food safety and storage advice.

Want to save on your grocery bill? 5 Tips to Save Money on Groceries & Household Essentials

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