How to Understand a Supplement Label
Now that healthy living has become more mainstream; marketing companies have found new ways to advertise not so healthy products. This is happening with cleaning supplies, beauty products, food items, and most especially, supplements like protein powders, health bars, and vitamins. These days in order to be a responsible consumer, you need to understand a supplement facts label. So if you’re ready to take your skills to the next level, keep reading to learn all the ins and outs about what to look for on supplement labels.
The Basic Elements of a Supplement Label
You might be wondering what is required on a supplement label. Some basics should remain the same no matter what you’re buying. So let’s break that down so you can understand what these sections mean.
Serving Size and Amount Per Serving
This part is essential, because, to get the amount of vitamins, minerals, or protein listed, you need to take a certain amount. For example, this could be the number of capsules, soft gels, or scoops (if it’s powder) you must consume in order to get the percent daily value that is promised. We’ll talk about what a percent daily value means below.
The location of the amount per serving on a supplement facts label is usually just below the serving size.
Percent Daily Value
Right next to “amount per serving” on the supplement facts label is one of the most important pieces of information: the % daily value. Basically, in 1994 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a minimum number for how much of a nutrient is recommended to get daily.
So if your supplement facts label states 50 under the % daily value, that means you’re getting half of what you should consume in a day. Some people say this is arbitrary, or that for some nutrients like B12 you should be getting a lot more than that daily minimum. In that case, some supplements will show more than 100 for the % daily value.
And then there are cases where the FDA hasn’t established the minimum daily value of a nutrient. That’s where you’ll see ** instead of a number. This means that it’s safe to consume these declared amounts and that these vitamins or minerals have been shown to have some benefit. Or else why would they be included in the supplement in the first place? Well, that’s a question for later. It’s important to note that just because something is in a supplement or powder doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
International Unit, Milligrams or Micrograms
Now we get to how specific vitamins and minerals are measured. Some vitamins like A, D, and E are measured using international units, or IUs. Then others like vitamin C or zinc, use milligrams to measure them out. Others like folate or vitamin B12 might use micrograms.
This would seem obvious right? But this is where supplement and vitamin companies can trick you! In a food-based supplement facts label, this part would list everything that is in it. And the quantity depends on the order that it’s listed in.
Say you have a protein powder that claims to have 26g of protein per serving. Well, not all protein is created equal right? If the ingredients section lists “soy isolate” at the beginning and “whey protein” at the end that means it’s mostly soy and has very little whey in it at all. Not so great! Our whey protein is pure and sourced from grass-fed cows. Free of soy isolate.
Another thing to look for in the ingredients section is “evaporated cane sugar” or “brown rice syrup.” If either of these is listed as the third ingredient on the list, then there is a good chance it is a high sugar supplement. Always watch out for hidden processed sugars as they hide in even the most unlikely places, even in the health world.
On supplement facts labels you’ll sometimes come across the “other ingredients” section. This is where binders, preservatives, and other capsule ingredients are listed. If you’re a person with celiac or other allergies, you want to check this part out to make sure there is nothing there that you might have an adverse reaction to.
Seals, Certifications and Patents
Though the FDA doesn’t completely regulate supplements, some 3rd parties offer rigorous testing. A supplement facts label can get this 3rd party seal of approval stating that it has been manufactured properly and really has the % daily value of a nutrient it claims to have. You’d be surprised at how many supplements don’t make the cut!
Also, ingredients like cod liver oil can be made using solvents, chemicals, or intense heat in the manufacturing process. This can turn the oil rancid, while in the worst-case scenario, you’re taking a supplement that includes chemicals. So if you want to make sure your supplement is pure, check for a 3rd party label assuring that it’s been tested.
Two of the most reputable seals to have when it comes to supplements are NSF International and The United States Pharmacopeia or USP. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great product, you’d have to check the ingredients and % daily values to determine that. But what this does mean is that a company believes in their brand and their product enough to have it thoroughly tested and the supplement facts label certified with a stamp of approval.
The expiration date on a supplement label is different than food labels. An expiration date on a supplement usually means that by that time, the ingredients will no longer be as powerful. It may not be harmful like drinking expired milk would be, but there’s no point in taking a supplement if it doesn’t have the nutritional or medicinal value you’re after. So once that expiration date has passed, buy a new bottle and toss the expired one.
Sometimes there is a note warning people who are pregnant or breastfeeding to avoid taking the supplement. Or potential side effects for people taking prescriptions. Always check this section of a supplement facts label if you’re someone who has an allergy or are taking other medications.
Now that you know what to look for on a supplement label, let’s move on to another pretty common question: How is a nutrition label different than a supplement label?
Nutrition Information vs Supplement Information
The biggest difference here is that supplement facts labels are required to list much more specific information because some or all of the ingredients haven’t been established by the FDA as safe food items. I know that sounds a little scary, but let me explain. The FDA has established certain ingredients as generally safe for ingestion (GRAS). If every single item in their product is also on that list, then it is considered a food and the company will use a nutrition label.
A nutrition label is completely FDA regulated and will explain the dietary ingredients, calories, fat and other nutritional content. It will not explain all nutritional content but only lists those with established RDA’s. This means “recommended daily values” and is similar to the % daily value on a supplement facts label. However, on the supplement, even nutrients without a % daily value must be listed, which is where you’ll see an **.
Supplements can also list the source of an ingredient. That means that if the whey protein in a supplement was sourced from grass-fed cows, it would say that on a supplement facts label. However, on a nutrition label, it will simply say whey protein (3). So again, supplements are much more specific because they may have things in them that aren’t regulated.
FDA Guidelines for Supplements
Why are FDA guidelines for supplement labels important you may be wondering? Well back in the day before the FDA stepped in to regulate supplements and vitamins, people were selling some horrible stuff.
For one thing, they were putting in huge doses of vitamins into their supplements and making incorrect claims about what they could do. Not only was this information wrong, it could also be dangerous. So in 1962, the FDA stepped in with % daily values or recommended daily allowances. That’s why the recommended daily allowances part of the supplement facts label is essential. Some vitamins, like vitamin A should not be taken in huge doses and having this clearly stated on the label allows consumers to make the call when it comes to how much of a particular ingredient they want to put in their bodies.
So after a lot of back and forth with supplement manufacturers, lobbying and law-making, the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act or DSHEA was passed. While the FDA doesn’t have as much power as they’d like to have over supplement regulation, they still have basic guidelines. These are the current FDA guidelines for dietary supplement labels and how they aim to keep us safe:
- The FDA has a place on their website where consumers can report side effects, adverse events, or other reactions they had from taking a supplement. This information and more found here on their website: https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements.
- If an ingredient is deemed harmful or potentially harmful, the FDA requires the supplement facts label to list a warning on it. Sometimes they even take that supplement off the market completely. Unfortunately, this can only happen after the fact, so sometimes companies may release something that isn’t pure before they are found out.
- The FDA monitors companies to make sure they aren’t making outrageous claims in marketing and labeling, like “this will cure cancer!” This is why you will often see under the “note” section a disclaimer stating something along the lines of “this product does not claim to cure, prevent, or treat disease.”
- The FDA makes sure that the manufacturing facilities are safe, just as in food production. These are called GMPs or Good Manufacturing Practices. This division of the FDA makes sure not only that facilities are safe, but also confirms claims. So if a label is making claims about where something came from, the FDA will confirm it.
So read up on your supplement facts label and make sure that it is FDA and GMP compliant. Looking for these seals of approval on your supplement will give you the peace of mind that someone is doing at least some quality control. This doesn’t mean that some companies won’t still try to deceive you with their marketing claims, which is why the 3rd party certifications came into play.
The major 3rd party groups are called the United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International, Consumer Lab.com and the Natural Products Association. These 3rd parties do further research of the facility (think cod liver oil- is it really raw and cold-pressed or does it use high heat which can cause it to go rancid). And they also test the supplement to verify that the product actually contains the % daily values it claims to have in it.
But don’t assume that a product isn’t great just because it doesn’t have these seals on it. Like anything else, it costs money to get these seals, and sometimes more prominent companies can afford to when smaller ones might have a better product. This is when knowing how to read the supplement facts label and trusting the story and faces behind a brand can make a difference. Does this company walk the talk? Do they stand for the values you’re buying into?
At Elevays we are all about this kind of transparency, so you know that when you purchase supplements from our store we trust them enough to use them in our own household, on our own family, and that we’ve done the research to find the best of the best for you too.
So I’m going wrap this up by sharing my top tips for reading and understanding supplement facts labels.
- Look at the ingredients first. That’s the first port of call when buying a supplement. Make sure the ingredients are as close to their natural source as possible. If you can’t understand what something is, it probably shouldn’t be in your supplement. Some people are sensitive to lecithins and emulsifiers too, so sticking with whole ingredients is a safe move. If you’re buying a protein powder or protein bar, make sure it’s not loaded with sugar, brown rice syrup or corn syrup (yes some companies still use this, which is the same thing that’s in sodas. Not a health food!)
- Check the % daily values to make sure there is enough of an ingredient to reach your goals. This is important when it comes to vitamins, especially. For example, if you know that you’re deficient in B12 and the % daily value in a B12 supplement isn’t over 100% it probably isn’t going to be enough to help you. Your nutritionist or functional medicine doctor will know how to lead you on this!
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Beware of labels that are making bold claims about what their product can do for you and using marketing schemes to hook you. If a product is worth their salt, all they need to do is straightforwardly list the ingredients. Technically the FDA doesn’t allow companies to make health or treatment claims, but some companies will try to step around this and get clever with their language. Use a critical and discerning eye!
Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of information on supplement facts labels: how to understand them and how they are different from a food label. I’m going to share tips on how to tell if your supplement is pure (and why that’s important) in another blog. So keep your eyes peeled!
I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any favorite supplements that you boldly stand behind? What about tips on which ones to stay away from? Leave a comment below and share your experience!
- Marszalec, Sean (2019). How to Read Supplement Labels: Sneaky Ways They Try to Trick You.” Retrieved from: https://breakingmuscle.com/fuel/how-to-read-supplement-labels-sneaky-ways-they-try-to-trick-you
- Dr. Weil (2019). “How to Read A Vitamin Label.” Retrieved from: https://www.drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/vitamins/how-to-read-a-vitamin-label/
- Label Calc (2018). Nutrition Label vs Supplement Label: Understanding the Differences.” Retrieved from: https://labelcalc.com/nutrition-facts-labels/nutrition-label-vs-supplement-label-understanding-the-differences/
- Pray, Steven (2008). “The FDA, Vitamins, And the Dietary Supplement Industry.” Retrieved from: https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/the-fda-vitamins-and-the-dietary-supplement-industry