Probiotics are friendly bacteria that are present in probiotic foods like yogurt and sauerkraut. They're also sold as supplements. But it's important to understand that the benefits you get from probiotics come from the fact that they're live microorganisms.
While probiotics do have an expiration date — usually one year after the date of manufacture — it's possible for the microorganisms in your probiotic foods and supplements to die long before that date. While taking expired probiotics isn't necessarily bad for you, you won't reap any of the health benefits from them if they're not viable, or living.
Probiotic supplements generally have an expiration that's one year from the date of manufacture, but it's possible that the live organisms in the supplement can die (and become ineffective) long before that year passes. The storage and handling of probiotics play a major role in how long the probiotics last.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and yeasts that naturally live in your gastrointestinal tract, or what's been more commonly referred to as your gut. But they don't just make themselves at home without offering benefits to you. Probiotics help make sure your digestive system is working properly and keep your entire body healthy by boosting your immune system. Harvard Health Publishing lists lots of health benefits of taking probiotics, including relief from:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease
- Vaginal infections and urinary tract infections (UTI)
- Bladder cancer
In a perfect world, the probiotics in your gut are properly balanced and are able to do their job effectively. But in an imperfect world that's full of chronic stress, processed foods and infection-causing bacteria, the probiotics become imbalanced. In these cases, it may be beneficial for you to consume live probiotics either through probiotic foods or probiotic supplements.
But the keyword here is live. Because probiotics are living and they're sensitive to the elements (heat and light), it's possible that you're getting expired probiotics or dead probiotics in some of the supplements that are on the shelves.
The Problem with Expired Probiotics
Most probiotics have a shelf life that's around one year. But things like heat and light can kill probiotics in both supplements and food. So, if you have a probiotic supplement that's been improperly handled, either during transportation or because you've stored it improperly, it's possible that the probiotics are no longer living and, thus, no longer beneficial to you.
One of the major problems with probiotics is that labeling recommendations only require the manufacturer to list the total amount of probiotics in a supplement, but that weight can include both living and dead microorganisms, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements.
In other words, you may think you're getting a strong probiotic with 10 billion colony-forming units (CFU), but there's really no way to tell whether those probiotics are dead or alive. It's entirely possible that a lot of the probiotics were dead or expired even before the supplement made it's way into your hands.
Some people suggest doing the probiotic milk test, which involves stirring the contents of a probiotic capsule into a bowl of milk and waiting to see if the milk turns into yogurt. This would mean that the bacteria in the probiotic are alive and able to ferment the milk. However, the test isn't always totally reliable.
Because probiotic supplements are so unreliable, Harvard Health Publishing recommends skipping them and getting your daily dose of beneficial bacteria through fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and pickles, instead.
Read more: 13 Surprising and Beneficial Probiotic Foods