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Do Expiration Dates Matter?

By Rod Moser, PA, PhD

Teenage boys seem to eat non-stop. My grandson was visiting for the weekend and brought a friend. It was all that I could do to keep up with their insatiable appetite. Eventually, they took on the task of rooting around for food. Dylan found a box of macaroni and cheese deep in the catacombs of our pantry. I couldn’t even remember buying it, but he was elated. I gave the okay for them to prepare it. While cleaning up the mess, I noticed that the box expired about seven years ago. Can dry macaroni and cheese powder actually expire? Does it have a shelf life? According to the manufacturer, it did, but the boys experienced no ill effects.

Refrigerators can be havens for expired foods. I particularly watch dates on milk and yogurt. There is nothing like taking a drink of sour milk to ruin your day. There are jars of pickles and other condiments that are several years old. There are no expiration dates on them, so perhaps they preceded the law requiring them? Deep in the freezer, one might find mystery meat with the white appearance of freezer burn, or the Ice Man.

Medicines have expiration dates, but rarely do they deter anyone from taking them. Is this practice harmful? Perhaps, but it depends on the medications. Some will lose potency. Some will be completely ineffective. Some will be just as good as the day they were packaged. My pharmacist friend says that expiration dates are often randomly assigned: for instance, one year after manufacture. I have to admit that I have taken a few of those “expired” medications at times, but as a rule, I throw them out. That date really worries me.

Medical providers tend to have a lot of pharmaceutical samples lying around. Periodically, while digging through a pile of samples, I may discover that most have expired. It is now up to me to safely dispose of them. It is not a good idea to flush them down the toilet where they may end up in the water supply. My home is on a septic system and my water source is a well. I would like to just bag them up and give them to my pharmacist friend to dispose of, or I take them to work where we have a special receptacle for this purpose.

I get a lot of coupons in the mail or on-line for oil changes, pizza, and smog certificates. Most will have expiration dates. It is a guarantee that the coupon will be discovered after the expiration date. Some companies will honor them just to get your business; others will not. Some will even take expired coupons from their competitors, knowing that you may go elsewhere. Places like Jiffy Lube will put a sticker on your window to remind you of the next oil change. Like an expiration date, one starts to feel guilty when you drive beyond the recommended mileage.

Due dates on bills are a little different. You miss that due date; you are often punished by a hefty late charge. Credit card late charges can be brutal and overly punitive, but of course, they are somewhat justified. I once received a statement after the due date, so I spent hours on the phone complaining.

What about the ultimate expiration date? Life expectancy in the United States and other countries has risen progressively, but no one really knows when that day will come. The Mayans think it will be later this year for all of us. When someone is faced with a terminal illness, everyone wants to know: “How long does he have, Doc?” They hope that it’s not the traditional “six weeks”. What is it about six weeks or six months? People with terminal diseases more than often exceed their estimated expiration date.

I always thought if humans had expiration dates on them, we would be able to plan our lives more efficiently. Life insurance companies bank (literally) on our estimated expiration date and charge accordingly. We carry all kinds of insurance: health, auto, home, liability/malpractice, even pet insurance. We all pray that we will never need it.

Humans do have expiration dates. We will not be here forever. When you live a risky life, you are cheating death every day. If you don’t wear seatbelts, if you smoke, if you drink and drive, if you run with scissors, it will eventually catch up with you. Some people seem to live beyond an unwritten expiration date. They did everything wrong, embraced all the bad habits, yet their DNA allowed them to keep on ticking. Willard Scott often interviews centenarians who attribute their longevity to booze and cigarettes.

Life is also tragic and unpredictable. A guy gives up red meat, stops smoking, drinks moderately, exercises regularly, and visits his medical provider on a regular basis for check-ups. He avoids bottled water and toxic chemicas, takes numerous vitamins and practices relaxation and yoga. He seems to be the epitome of health, an example of perfection for all of us. One day, when he is jogging, he is hit by an overweight drunk driver trying to light a cigarette.

It happens.

My advice to all of you is to live your life each day like it was your expiration date, and then rejoice the next day when you wake up and are blessed with another. We can all choose to live a healthier lifestyle, or just sit back and wait for the Grim Reaper to knock. If you do find an expiration date somewhere on your body as you shower tonight, tear it off. It is safe and desirable to live beyond your expiration date.


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