There is no denying the fact that tea has had a massive impact on the world in more than a few different ways. Not only is tea one of the most popular drinks and one of the most popular imports into different countries, but tea has also rooted itself into history, solidifying its impact on the world in more ways than simply being an enjoyable drink.
As popular as tea has become, there are going to be different ways to drink tea. There are pre-made, steeped, and ready-to-drink bottled teas, there are loose leaves that you can put into the tea yourself, and there are tea bags that you can use to soak in water.
Naturally, when there are many different ways that you can enjoy tea, it would make sense that people would begin to wonder if tea ever expires, and if it does, what it could do to you if you drink the expired tea.
However, the answer to these questions isn’t a simple cut and dry response because there are so many different areas to consider when it comes to the tea.
You have to consider what your definition of “expired” is, what the environment around the tea was, and also the type of tea that you are working with. Storing an already opened bottle of tea on your desk for months is very different than simply keeping a box of tea bags on your desk for the same amount of time.
Whether or not it is safe to drink expired tea depends on the kind of tea you are working with and the circumstances surrounding it. As a short response, expired tea is almost always safe to drink, unless there is something noticeably wrong with the tea itself, such as bugs crawling in the bag, mold in the bottle, or a foul smell emanating from the tea.
The Myth of Expired Tea
When most people think about food that is labelled as “expired,” they often think about food that is no longer good to eat, or food that could potentially harm you if you have eaten it. This isn’t always what the term “expired” refers to though, especially in countries that make heavy use of “sell by” dates.
Sell-by dates are dates that indicate when a product should be sold so that the customer can get the experience with the product itself, whether that is freshness or taste, or whatever it may be.
Products that have passed their sell-by dates are generally safe to eat, but they may simply be closer to actually “expiring” in the sense of becoming unsafe, but this only refers to perishable foods.
With foods and products that are nonperishable, it simply means that the taste will no longer be as strong, the colors may not be right, and the smell may not be as fragrant, despite the fact that the product is likely still safe to eat.
The idea behind this is that by employing a sell-by date, companies can be certain that their products are in top condition for their customers, so that they can get a good reputation for the products being sold.
So, how does this relate to tea, and the sell-by dates on tea?
Most teas will have a sell-by date because it has been heavily noted that after a certain period of time, the taste, scent, and appearance of tea will degrade as it ages. Companies that sell tea don’t want to be associated with that diminished taste and appearance, so they have sell-by dates to ensure that their products remain at their best.
The tea, even if it has passed the sell-by date, is still completely safe to drink, though it may not taste as strongly as it once may have. Even if the tea is technically considered “expired” because it has gone past the sell-by date indicated on the box, it has not necessarily become a danger to your health (assuming that the tea looks and smells safe).
What this means for you is that tea doesn’t really have an expiration date in the sense that there isn’t a time when tea becomes unsafe to drink solely because of the passing of time. There are outside factors that can make tea unsafe, such as storage conditions, but these are not related to the time that has passed since the tea was set out on the shelves.
Over time, tea will degrade and gradually lose its taste and its colors and aroma will fade away, but this is the worst that happens to aging tea. What you have to worry about, though, is storage conditions and how the tea looks in appearance, as this will tell you if there are any outside factors that affect the safeness of the tea.
Examining the Different Kinds of Tea and How They Age
There are three main types of tea that people will purchase from the store. There are the pre-made bottles of tea that people enjoy for their ease and how it can be had on-the-go, there are the tea bags that are the most common form of tea, and then there are loose-leaf teas that tea enthusiasts enjoy.
Each type of tea will degrade over time in a different way. For instance, in tea that has already been made and packaged in a bottle, you can’t really see the quality of the leaves change over time, and with tea bags, you won’t really see the appearance of mold quite as often as with bottled teas.
Beginning with bottled teas, these teas age fairly well depending on the quality of the bottle they are in and whether or not they have been opened. Naturally, if they are stored in a place with direct sunlight, they will degrade significantly faster as UV light is not kind to teas.
If the bottle has been opened, you are going to have to be much more thorough in how you examine it. The bottle is not only a moist environment for mold to take hold, but your mouth is also teeming with bacteria, so an already opened bottle of tea that has been left out is a prime source for mold to form, and this is the biggest danger you will have when leaving this out past its sell-by date.
Aside from this, it will simply lose its flavor and likely some of its appearance depending on how it was stored, and if it was exposed to sunlight. Most bottled teas will have a sell-by date on them, and they can usually last a fair amount of time depending on the ingredients, but should be immediately put into the fridge upon opening.
Tea bags typically retain their flavor for one to two years after their sell-by dates, though it may not be as sharp and some of the undertones may fade out over the years. Aside from that, they are known for keeping very well, and in some parts of the world, teas can be kept for decades at a time without any problems.
The real threat comes in when you consider tea storage. You have to store the tea bags properly, or else you run the risk of speeding up the degradation of the tea flavors and appearance, and even run the risk of inviting bugs and mold into the tea bag.
For tea bags, you will want to keep them in an airtight container in a low-light and cooler environment to keep its taste fresh as long as you can, and you will want to aim for an environment that isn’t very humid so you can make it unappealing to nature.
Tea bags that are exposed to water may begin to grow mold or attract insects, depending on the smell of the tea, although if there are insects, the bags will usually be broken as a sign of this.
Finally, there are loose-leaf teas. These are the most delicate of the types of teas to work with and are the hardest to keep stored properly and away from an environment that will degrade the tea and age it prematurely.
It follows many of the same requirements as tea bags, but you simply have to exercise more care as the leaves are, well, loose and not contained in a nice bag with spices and crushed leaves as the name would suggest.
When tea leaves age they will crack and dry out, which only increases the surface area that is exposed to air, which increases the degradation process even more, leading to them no longer producing the flavors you want from your tea.
How Can You Tell When Tea Has Gone Bad?
Tea is usually pretty apparent when it has gone bad, which is good to know, so you won’t have to spend that much time worrying about whether your tea is fine to drink or not before actually using it and drinking it.
All forms of tea share some of the same characteristics of aging and degrading over time, and those include the loss of taste, the loss of aroma, and the fading of color. Older teas are not always going to hold up to the finer details that fresh teas have, especially if they are not meant to be teas that should be aged.
The biggest and most notable sign of tea reaching the end of its fresh period is when its taste begins to fade out. This process is gradual, as all the molecules and compounds that make the tea taste the way it does break down continuously until they are so diluted that they no longer seem to be there, with each compound breaking down at a different rate.
That is to say that your tea will not taste wretched the day after the sell-by date passes, but rather, it will be a slow and steady process of losing some of the finer notes of the tea until almost all of the flavor has degraded and you are left with water that vaguely tastes like a leaf.
First things to go are likely going to be the undertones of the flavor, and which ones those are depends on the contents of the tea, as some artificial flavorings may stay far longer than the natural compounds in the tea. Typically, floral, fruity, and vegetal notes are going to be the first to go before some of the larger aspects of the tea taste.
After about three years, the drop in taste and quality is going to be noticeable, and it will only continue from there. During this, the aroma will degrade as well, as those same compounds that add to the taste of the tea also add to the smell of the tea, and the aroma will typically fade away at the same rate as the tea’s flavor, since the two go hand-in-hand.
In some cases, the color of the tea will fade out too, but this is mostly applicable when the tea has been stored in the sun and exposed to more UV light. This is because UV light significantly hastens the natural process of breaking down the compounds in the tea that adds to its color.
Consider how if you leave plants or other organic materials out in the sun too much, or if you don’t place a shade-loving plant in the right amount of shade, its color will almost appear to be bleached out. What sunlight does to tea is not dissimilar from this, especially considering that tea has those same organic origins, being from tea leaves originally.
There is also the extreme end of the scale that you should note. In cases where tea has been stored in a poor environment for tea storage, there’s a chance that it can become drastically different and far easier to tell when it has gone bad, such as when already opened bottled tea has mold growing in it.
For instance, tea bags that are stored openly in a damp environment have the increased chance of attracting insects that will chew through the tea bags to get to those aromatic leaves. After all, if there are people who love teas for their aroma, then it would make sense that animals with an even better sense of smell would want to go after them too.
If there are holes in tea bags, this is a definite sign that they need to be discarded, as you may not know what made the holes or what has gotten into the tea bag, and you probably don’t want to find out by drinking it.
Additionally, if there are any foul smells coming from your tea, you shouldn’t drink it either, as tea is aromatic and should not be particularly putrid.
What Happens If You Drink Expired Tea?
As mentioned earlier, assuming that your tea has nothing noticeably wrong with it (such as drastically different colors, a foul smell, or holes in the tea bag), then there will be no physical harm to your body from drinking tea that has gone past its sell-by date.
The worst that drinking these teas will do to you is simply leave a poor taste in your mouth if the taste of the tea has degraded enough.
You can think about it in the sense of using spices that have been around for much longer than their use-by dates, especially considering that both tea and spices generally originate from plants.
Spices that have been around in your kitchen for a while generally lose their taste and fade out, meaning that you might need to work with them a bit more to get them to taste the same way they used to.
Tea is not dissimilar to this.
When tea loses its taste, the general way to fix this is to simply steep the tea longer to try and drag whatever flavorful compounds are still remaining in the tea into the water so that you can still enjoy your drink.
If this doesn’t work or doesn’t restore its taste to where you want it to be, then the only thing that this means is that the tea might just be too old to really enjoy anymore and that it’s time to purchase new teas.
When all is said and done, the worst that drinking expired tea will do to you is disappoint you, as there will no longer be those finer points to the tea that really tie its taste together into what it should be and what you are used to. Aside from that, drinking expired tea is not an unhealthy experience, though it may not be a particularly tasty one.
There are some teas that are far less prone to this degradation of taste than others, and for these teas, depending on just how old they are, they will actually be just fine for you to drink and there will be little to no difference in its taste. These teas include Pu Erh tea, dark Oolong teas, black tea, certain white teas, and dark blends of mixed teas.
By contrast, teas that are known for aging poorly and losing their taste within years after the sell-by date has passed include green teas, yellow teas, green oolong teas, herbal teas, fruit teas, most aromatic teas, and many mixed teas.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Film/Video/Media Studies, as well as an associates degree in Communications. I began producing videos and musical recordings nearly 15 years ago. I am a guitarist and bassist in Southwest MI and have been in a few different bands since 2009, and in 2012 I began building custom guitars and basses in my home workshop as well. When I’m home, I love spending time with my three pets (a dog, cat, and snake) and gardening in my backyard.