A question many of us have wondered at one point or another: will my protein powder supplements go off if I don’t take them in time? It has stressed out many a would-be athlete as they are presented with a choice: buy in bulk and always have a ready supply; or buy in smaller, more expensive quantities, risk running out but making sure that it’s all fresh, healthy and tasty.
What to choose?
Well, don’t worry – I’ve got you covered as I dive in depth into the issue. In this article I will talk about the uses of protein powder, how long products generally last, and how you can maximise the longevity of your protein powder through correct and efficient storage.
First things first – we’ve all been there. You’ve overbought protein powder. Perhaps you had a fit of enthusiasm and decided to get everything and more that you would need for your forthcoming fitness journey. Perhaps there was an offer on or perhaps you simply misjudged how much protein powder you would be needing. Or maybe you’re just getting back into athletics and you’ve found an old tub of protein at the back of your cupboard from a year ago. Either way, you’ve got more than you know what to do with and you’re asking yourself whether it can go bad if you don’t take it in time.
Let me start with some good news. If you’ve stored your protein powder properly (which I’ll go into in more detail below) and it only goes a couple of months out of date then you are most likely fine – the powder will still be usable.
Read on to find out more about protein powder storage, shelf life, freshness, signs of spoilage and more, so that you can make a fully informed decision on your supplement buying habits.
Protein powder: what’s all the fuss about?
Many athletes supplement their dietary protein intake with protein powder, be it whey protein or one of the many non-animal products like soya or pea protein. There are several reasons why you may choose to do so. It’s far more convenient to take a quick protein shake than to prepare meal after meal throughout the day, so for many of us protein powder suits us very well. It’s also a very cost effective way of increasing your dietary intake, with portions of protein powder being substantially cheaper than buying protein heavy foods. It also allows you to better isolate the protein – if you’re looking to take in 150g+ daily (a very reasonable amount for anyone taking part in barbell athletics or looking for hypertrophy from their training) to do so through food alone would bring a lot of unwanted additional fat and carbohydrate consumption. Using protein powder, you can balance your macronutrient intake a lot more easily and effectively.
Protein supplements come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can find protein powder- usually, though not always, whey- sold in ready mixed shakes, bars, meal replacements, breakfast cereals, cookies, and, most commonly, as a raw powder for use in making DIY shakes.
How to use your protein powder
Protein powders often come with added flavouring to make them easier to consume- who wouldn’t want to drink a couple of chocolate milkshakes daily in the pursuit of health and fitness? You mix them with milk, water or fruit juice and consume them either pre- or post-workout or in the place of a meal or snack. Personally, I take one about an hour pre-workout with milk and a handful of oats for slow release energy, and additionally later in the day to bump up my day’s protein intake, totalling perhaps 70-90 grams of whey protein daily to supplement my meal plans. This may sound like a lot, but if you spend four or more days per week under a heavy barbell, it soon becomes very necessary to your recovery to be putting in numbers like this.
This is a relatively obvious use, though none the worse for it. Shakes made from sweetened and flavoured protein powders are quick and effective and relatively palatable. However, there are a few ways to show off your creative side if you want it- ingenuity is always going to be your friend here!
I personally enjoy changing out the sugar and some of the flour in pancake mix with a scoop or two of protein powder. It gives you a slightly tougher texture, but is still a tasty snack and helps you to put the numbers in. Other baked goods can benefit from this kind of treatment- I recommend trying a few out if you’re feeling adventurous.
Unflavoured protein powders can also be great in soups or stews, beefing up a hearty dish even more. Try adding a scoop or so to your favourite sauces, or to traditionally carbohydrate laden dishes like porridge.
If this sounds like a fair amount of work to do on a daily basis, you are always welcome to freeze pre-prepared food.
This moves us nicely on to the crux of this article: how easy is it to store protein powder, and does it go bad? Luckily, there is a short and simple answer: it takes ages to go bad and food prepared with protein powder in can be frozen for extra longevity. Just load up on the Tupperware and freeze weeks worth of meals in one go.
How long will your protein powder last?
In common with most consumable products on the market, your protein powder will have a ‘use by’ and/or a ‘best before’ date on its labelling. This should usually be something like 12 to 24 months after the date of production, meaning that it lasts a long time.
Bear in mind that this is not an expiration date. It won’t go bad as soon as this date passes- in fact, you’ll likely get another few months out of it as long as you follow my storage tips below.
The most commonly used protein powder is whey, so I’ll focus on this for a little bit. It’s hard to state exactly how long your whey protein will last you: estimates begin at around 6 to 9 months after the ‘use by’ date on the label for an unopened package, though you will find some cases of people using it to great effect several years after this point. Whey protein that has been opened should last you up to about 3 to 6 months after the ‘use by’ date (opening the package exposes the whey protein to oxygen, bacteria and moisture, all of which will speed up the process of it going bad.)
Don’t worry however – in a moment I’ll go through how to tell if your protein powder has gone bad, so you should always be able to tell whether or not it has lasted well.
In addition, it’s also bearing another thing in mind when you’re looking at the longevity of your protein powder. A lot of more specialised protein products will contain additional vitamins, minerals and trace elements that are not present in the basic protein formula- things like caffeine, green tea extract, glutamine… the list goes on. These will likely lose their potency over time. The protein may still be OK, and I encourage you still to use it, just be mindful of the fact that these added benefits will not be so well delivered.
How long can you keep your protein powder in water?
This is one that a lot of people ask: how long does your protein shake last after mixing; how drinkable will it be, and after how long?
How long can you store protein powder once it’s in water.
Once more, there are a couple of straightforward rules to follow in order to maximise longevity, and they are ones that you will see repeatedly throughout this article. Firstly, keep it in a sealed container, bottle or shaker, allowing no excess oxygen to get into it. This will inhibit several processes that would otherwise lead the protein powder to go off. Secondly, keep it in the fridge- once more, heat is not your friend when it comes to protein powder. Keep it cold to keep it fresh. If you want to premix it before leaving for the gym, however, you can expect the protein shake to stay safe and drinkable in your gym bag throughout the day.
If you follow these then you can expect your protein shake to last for up to two days. Always remember to give it one last mix or shake before drinking to avoid any clumps or separation.
Leaving it for too much longer than this will result in a drink that tastes pretty bad. If you see below for ways in which to tell if your protein powder has gone bad then you will see that taste is a big one.
So can you still use protein powder after its expiration date?
Yes and no. But don’t worry- I’m about to become more helpful than this.
I’m specifically talking about whey protein here, though it has applications across various varieties of protein powder.
It is not the best idea to use protein after its expiration date for one very good reason. A lot of its muscle building potency diminishes with time- the longer you leave it, the fewer benefits you will get from your protein powder. There is a chemical reaction called Maillard browning that whey protein in particular suffers from over time. Maillard browning is essentially a reaction between the protein and the leftover sugar from the whey’s removal from milk.
This leads to a breakdown of lysine, a key amino acid. Once this is lost, the whey protein cannot anymore make one of its most fundamental claims to potency- namely that it is a complete protein. Protein breakdown is one of the major contributing factors to protein powder’s possible lack of longevity.
This being said, it shouldn’t stop you from using older protein entirely. Protein powders are dry and so they last longer: microbes will not grow in them as long as no moisture is introduced. Because of this, they won’t ‘go bad’ in the same way that other foods like meat or other dairy products might.
If the protein is beyond its ‘use by’ date, it will likely be OK. See the rest of this article to find out more about this. However, just bear in mind that it might have lost some of its potency.
How to store your protein powder
One of the more vital discussions within this subject is the correct storage of protein- correct storage will deliver a great deal more longevity if you’re looking for it.
There are a few things that will affect your protein’s shelf life. These are the variables we will be seeking to control when looking at how to look after protein powder, and they are light, temperature and exposure to moisture and bacteria.
To best store your protein powder, make sure that it is in a sealed container in an environment that is cool, dark and dry. Most kitchen cabinets will do well in this regard.
Upon first opening a package of protein powder, make sure that it is always kept in an airtight container so that no moisture or contaminants can get to it. Most products will come either in a big plastic tub that is easy to open and close, sealing tight, or else in a resealable, airtight pouch. These are obviously designed for longevity in storage and so will work perfectly. However, if you choose a protein powder that doesn’t come in a resealable container like this, make sure to transplant the contents into one after opening.
It may be worth holding onto a couple of empty protein tubs in case you need them- then you can buy whatever product you like and easily transplant it into, and store it in, a purpose built container.
In order to keep your protein powder fresher for longer, make sure you do the following:
- Always seal the powder’s bag or container completely after use
- If the bag or container won’t seal, find one that does and store your powder in here
- Never keep the container open for too long- you don’t want your powder to be exposed like this
- Keep it away from sunlight, heat and moisture
- So, store it in a dark, dry, cool area like a kitchen cabinet or pantry
How to tell if your protein powder has gone bad
Whey protein shouldn’t really go off unless any contaminants or moisture get into the container. As long as you keep it well sealed it should be OK. However, it’s always best to check.
The first thing to consider- and the first you will likely notice- is how the powder looks and smells, the same as with any consumable. This should alert you as to whether or not the powder has gone bad, and is a fairly straight forward, simple test for it. If there are any clumps within the powder’s body then you can take it as a sign that there has been some moisture that has got into it. Throw it away- it’s gone bad. As I mentioned above, protein powders are incredibly sensitive to moisture and will go off surprisingly quickly when water is introduced to them. It is more than likely that a container of protein powder that has moisture introduced to it before its ‘use by’ date then it will go off even before the date shown.
This advice applies as well if it doesn’t smell right. If there is any pungency or mustiness to it then it’s probably a good idea to discard the contents and get some fresh powder in.
If the look and smell check out, it’s time to taste the powder. If there’s no moisture and the powder doesn’t smell musty, try dipping a finger into it and tasting. Or else prepare a shake and take a tentative sip before chugging. It there is an off smell or taste- anything musty, once more, or eggy, fishy… anything undesirable, really- then throw it away.
If nothing is amiss in these regards, however, then you are OK. Feel free to continue with the powder.