A well designed long term survival food storage program will contain most of the vitamins and minerals you need to make it through a crisis, with the exception of Vitamin A and Vitamin C. It may be a good idea to store vitamin supplements to ensure you get the nutrients you need when food is limited. The challenge with storing vitamin supplements is that they will not last as long as beans and rice in storage.
What is the actual usable shelf life of vitamin and nutritional supplements? Reasonable shelf life expectation for vitamin tablets under ideal conditions may be 10-15 years. The actual shelf life of vitamins is subject to too many variables to determine precise storage life. Vitamins gradually decrease in potency over time. Conditions that accelerate the deterioration of vitamins include; heat, light, and humidity.
I contacted 20 vitamin and nutritional supplement manufactures along with a chemical engineer in an effort to get the most accurate information on the actual shelf life of vitamins. I was surprised to find quite a bit of ambiguity and little consensus regarding the actual shelf life of vitamins and nutritional supplements.
The best information came from Jay R. Whimpey, PE who is a chemical engineer by trade and President of The American Civil Defense Association. I have quoted Jay’s responses throughout the post below.
What Is the Viable Shelf Life of Vitamins and Nutritional Supplements?
The “use by” or “best by” date printed on a vitamin package is the date the manufacturer is required to guarantee full potency of the product. Vitamin supplements may actually be effective for many years past the date on the bottle but there are too many variables to provide an exact shelf life. The ingredients will gradually decompose over time and the decomposition rate is dependent upon these 3 major factors:
- The vitamin
- Binders and added ingredients
- Storage conditions
The Specific Vitamin
Each vitamin is unique in its stability and susceptibility to physical and chemical agents. For instance; Vitamin A is highly sensitive light, where Vitamin B12 tends to be stable when exposed to light. Folic Acid is stable in the presence of oxygen but is highly sensitive to heat and light.
Binders and Added Ingredients
The ingredients added to create the pill such as artificial food coloring, cellulose, gelatin, stearic acid, silicon dioxide, titanium dioxide, potassium sorbate, soy lecithin, flavors, and sweeteners can have a significant effect on the shelf life of the vitamin supplement.
Jay Whimpey, P.E. notes:
The short answer from a chemistry standpoint is that it depends on the vitamin in particular, the storage conditions, and if it is mixed with anything else that is reactive. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is reactive since it is an acid and it could react with the binder in a tablet. Pure ascorbic acid would not have anything to react with so it would last much longer as a pure substance.
Most vitamins and supplements are acidic since it helps the digestive system absorb the vitamin. You see this as hydrochloride (HCl) on the end of the chemical name. A Vitamin D type material that is lipid soluble and non-acidic would be pretty stable although there are unsaturations in the oil that can react over time.
Exposure to heat, light, oxygen, and moisture can accelerate the decomposition of vitamins.
Manufacturer Recommendations Versus Actual Shelf Life
The general consensus from the manufacturers that I contacted are summed up in the quotes below:
- The expiration date on Nutrilite® supplements is the date we guarantee the product will be at full potency listed on the label. Food supplements, unlike over the counter and prescription drugs, do not become harmful. However, they start to lose their potency. We would not recommend consumption past the expiration date.
- Our Quality Assurance department assures product integrity, purity and accuracy of contents up to its expiration date. We can no longer guarantee potency and quality after the expiration date has passed. The expiration dates on Puritan’s Pride products is from 6 months to 3 years.
Jay Whimpey, P.E. explains:
I believe the shelf life calculations are very conservative and I do not believe the potency would change much going past the shelf life by a factor of two or three times. The reaction would be very gradual and would slow as time passes like a half-life calculation. So the vitamins would gradually lose potency but I believe you could depend on reasonable potency at least 10 to 15 years in cool, dry, and dark storage conditions.
What Are the Ideal Storage Conditions for Vitamins and Supplements?
Vitamins are best stored in their original packaging under cool, dry conditions. It is important to protect vitamins from light, heat, oxygen, and humidity. I like to store my vitamins in a plastic shoe box inside of a file cabinet in our dark basement storeroom. The plastic container protects and provides an additional layer of protection for the packaging from the environment and helps to keep the supplements organized.
The colder the storage temperature, the longer they will maintain the original potency and quality. According to Jay Whimpey, P.E. the temperature will make a significant difference in the viable shelf life of vitamin supplements.
In practice, the reactions should be very slow in cool dry storage. In general, the molecular activity and thereby reactions are reduced by a factor of two for every 18° F that the temperature is reduced. If you assume that storage life is calculated at 75º F then:
- reducing the temperature to 57º F (underground shelter temperature) would double the shelf life
- reducing the temperature to 39º F (refrigerator temperature) would quadruple the shelf life
- reducing to 21º F (freezer temperature) would increase the shelf life by roughly 8 times
What Happens to a Vitamin Supplement as It Ages?
As vitamins age, they generally start to gradually lose potency. Nutritive value can be affected by environmental factors such as temperature and moisture. Optimal storage conditions (cool, dry, and dark) will slow the rate of decomposition and the vitamin will maintain potency for a longer period of time.
Can It Be Dangerous to Take Older Vitamins or Supplements?
It is ideal to consume vitamins and nutritional supplements within the manufacturer’s recommended time that is printed on the container. However, if you are storing vitamin supplements as part of your long term food supply this may not be practical. You may be faced with a decision to take an older supplement or take your chances of acquiring a vitamin deficiency when food is scarce.
- Food supplements do not become harmful, toxic, or poisonous over time. They simply gradually lose potency as they get older.
- Never take a supplement if it has developed an unusual odor or appearance. That may be indicative of mold or contaminants that can cause serious illness.
Which Forms of Vitamins and Supplements Are Best for Long Term Storage?
Pure forms of vitamins in tablet or powder form will have the longest usable shelf-life. Gel caps, chewable, and gummy type vitamins are higher in moisture and will not store as long. Oils will go rancid. Supplements containing live bacteria such as probiotics will eventually die and be useless.
Vitamin B12 and Vitamin C are the most fragile in storage. Long term storage of Vitamin C may be accomplished by storing L-Ascorbic Acid Powder, which is stable in storage. I purchase the ascorbic acid in bulk and then transfer it into empty labeled vitamin supplement bottles for long term storage. It can be stored in the original Mylar bag or bucket but I find that it is easier to use in smaller quantities.
Storing vitamin supplements in long term storage should include Vitamin C as that can’t be easily obtained through stored foods. Vitamin A is also a nutrient that tends to be missing from stored dry goods. A good multivitamin in tablet form along with pure ascorbic acid is a good way to make sure you have basic vitamins and minerals covered.
Growing your own fruits and vegetables to supplement your long term food storage is the very best way to get those nutrients. Sprouting seeds changes the nutrient content and provides vitamins that were not present before sprouting. Jay Whimpey, P.E. also notes the need for natural vitamin sources:
The effort should be to find renewable sources for vitamin D like sunshine and vitamin C like sprouting seeds. The B vitamins can be obtained from green or yellow leafy vegetables.
Are there any special considerations when disposing of older supplements?
The response from supplement manufacturers as to the disposal of expired supplements varied. One recommended: “To safely dispose of expired vitamins and supplements, please contact the local waste disposal company in your area for the recommendations”. While another simply said, “Regarding disposal of expired supplements, they can be disposed of in the trash.”
The supply that I stock is so small that I personally would dissolve the multi-vitamins in water and use them to fertilize the plants in my garden. That way nothing goes to waste. You need to decide what method of disposal you are comfortable with.
What Is the Best Vitamin Storage Option to Supplement My Survival Food Supply?
The ideal vitamin supplement for long term storage is in a tablet form in the unopened original container. Do not store gel caps, chewable, gummy, or liquid forms in long term storage. The container must be completely airtight and protect the vitamins from any exposure to light.
Frequent rotation is always the best plan when it comes to storing vitamins in your long term storage. A fresh supply will ensure that you have the highest level of nutrients. You can keep a fresh supply of your favorite supplements by stocking enough for one year ahead and replacing them with new stock each year.
Grow Your Own Vitamins
Supplements can be very helpful, but whenever possible it is best to grow your own. I encourage planting fruit trees, berry bushes, and growing a small garden that will produce nutrient-packed vegetables. Take advantage of any space that you can even if it is only potted tomatoes on a balcony or patio. Every little bit of fresh nutrients can make a difference to your health.
Consider storing seeds to grow your own sprouts in your survival food supply. Wheat, alfalfa, green lentils, green peas, mung beans, and yellow soybeans are just a few popular sprouting seeds. These seeds will store for many years and will provide you with a weed-free mini-garden inside your home all year long. Sprouts are a great way to get vitamins that your survival food storage is lacking.
Develop Your Personalized Plan
Vitamin deficiency can result in a wide variety of physical and mental health problems. What is your plan to make sure that you have access to adequate nutrition when life gets rough?
Start by building a well-rounded long term survival food supply that you have designed to meet the specific needs of your family. We give you some great ideas for building it here. Carefully consider what risks you are planning to survive and the best ways to meet your nutritional needs if those events do occur.