Many people put in all the effort they can towards perfecting their diets, but still find that there are some vitamin/mineral gaps that need to be filled. This is where a dietary supplement can really be useful.
However, it can be quite difficult to read supplement labels these days, as they can contain a myriad of different ingredients in varying dosages, among a bunch of other useful information. It can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be.
Ahead, we’re going to talk about how you can take what appear to be scary labels filled with an overwhelming amount of information and turn them into easy tidbits of information that you can use to educate yourself on a product and whether or not it’s right for you.
Dietary Supplement Regulation
Dietary supplements come in a wide variety of forms; tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids, just to name a few. Some of the most common types of supplements are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and probiotics. But who regulates it all?
The FDA is responsible for regulating both finished supplement products and ingredients.
Something to keep in mind, however, is that the Food & Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements in the same way that they do for drugs. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), action against supplements with fraudulent claims or banned substances does not occur until after it has been brought to market .
This means there could be a period of time that a fraudulent supplement or substance is being sold on the market before the FDA catches it and issues a recall. Thus, to be safe, it’s important that you learn to and practice reading labels of dietary supplements; so that you know you’re getting the best quality product possible. It all starts with the label.
Reading a Nutrition Label
Also referred to as the Nutrition Facts label, this is where you’ll find all the information you need to know about the dietary supplement which you plan to take. Some basic, yet helpful information you’ll find on there include:
- Serving size
- Number of servings per container
- Ingredient list
- List of nutrients in the product + the amount of each nutrient in each serving size
It’s also important to read the manufacturers’ directions that accompany the supplement facts label. It’ll often include information on when you should take it during the day, along with how many times per day is recommended. For example, some multivitamins are marketed as “once-daily”, whereas other multivitamin supplements will specify that for best results you should take it 2-3x/day.
Along with the types of nutrients included in the product, the amount of each nutrient that’s included in each serving size is also included on the supplement facts label. This is represented as a % Daily Value (%DV), sometimes referred to as a Recommended Daily Value (RDV), which is a measure of how much of that particular nutrient is needed per day for most individuals according to the current federal government recommendations.
For example, if a nutrition facts label on a dietary supplement says that it contains 100% DV of vitamin C, this means that a particular product has 100% of your recommended daily value of vitamin C in one serving of that product. Some nutrients you’ll see don’t have an established RDV, which is usually represented by a set of asterisks (***) in place of the %DV.
Something else to keep in mind is the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL). This is the maximum daily intake of any particular nutrient/ingredient that is not known to cause any adverse health consequences . Unfortunately, this is rarely, if ever, found on a supplement facts label. But it can easily be found online by searching for the ingredient followed by the phrase “tolerable upper intake level”.
Located below/after the supplement facts panel is the list of all the other ingredients used.
They are listed in order from the highest quantity to the lowest quantity.
In other words, if an ingredient appears first on the list, it means that it contains more of that ingredient than the one second on the list, the product contains more of the second ingredient than of the third, and it continues down the list in that fashion.
It’s key that you look for ingredients such as additives, preservatives, sweeteners, and fillers, as these are often used by manufacturers to reduce the number of expenses involved in making the supplement itself. They also help to add texture and substance to tablets and capsules and give an overall presentation to the product in terms of appearance, taste, and smell.
While it’s necessary in most cases for a few of these ingredients to appear in the list, avoid products that contain a laundry list of these types of ingredients. Here are some examples of these types of ingredients:
- Soybean oil
- Citric acid
- Soy lecithin
- Silicon dioxide
Quality, as they say, is more important than quantity. But who ensures we get quality stuff?
Dietary Supplement Quality
Dietary supplements in the United States are required to follow Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) in order to ensure that a supplement manufacturer has provided the highest quality supplements possible .
The FDA is responsible for enforcing these CGMPs onto manufacturers so that the supplements you are purchasing meet the claims of strength, purity, and composition that the manufacturer is putting out there.
In addition to this, some companies undergo a voluntary additional verification process through a third-party in order to ensure the purity and efficacy of their supplements. Some of the most common third-party testing that manufacturers in the United States use are:
- NSF International
- United States Pharmacopeia (USP)
- Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG)
These third-parties often provide what’s called a Certificate of Analysis (COA) to the manufacturer in order to show that they’ve passed the third-parties tests. This is usually available as a QR code on the label of the supplement itself or it can be found on the website of the third-party.
There are some common terms that manufacturers of dietary supplements will use such as “all-natural” and “organic” that will be placed on the front of the label. This may be somewhat confusing for some consumers, as some of these terms don’t have any regulations behind them. This means that some of these terms truly don’t carry any meaning behind them whatsoever. Here are some of the more common terms you’ll see associated with dietary supplements.
This is actually a regulated term by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is often recognized by the USDA logo on the front of the packaging. Dietary supplements that are marketed as organic must abide by the regulations of the National Organic Program, as well as having their ingredients being sourced from organic plants or animals .
The terms “natural” or “all-natural” refer to products that don’t have any artificial ingredients, such as sweeteners, colors, and/or preservatives . Unfortunately, however, these terms and their variants aren’t regulated very seriously in the United States. Because of this, it’s still vital that you use these supplement label reading skills you’re acquiring, in order to ensure that the product you plan on purchasing doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients.
“Whole food” or “food-based” supplements claim to have ingredients that are derived only from the food sources themselves; none of which were derived synthetically from a laboratory. Quite often, these supplements are made using a concentrated blend of specific food substances which have been dehydrated.
However, this term doesn’t have much meaning behind it, as it’s not regulated by the FDA. Because of this, it’s important to keep an eye out for those synthetic additives, fillers, and other ingredients.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have gotten a bad rap over the years. People have chosen to reduce or eliminate these from their diets for various reasons, some of which include concerns regarding antibiotic resistance and their potential long-term health consequences .
Thus, many dietary supplement manufacturers have put claims on their products saying that these ingredients are not present in their products whatsoever.
If you’re looking to ensure that the product you’re purchasing does not contain any GMOs, look for a seal from The Non-GMO Project, which is a non-profit organization that helps to verify that the ingredients contained within dietary supplements and other food products do not contain any GMOs.
Watch out for exaggerated or otherwise extreme health claims on dietary supplements. Manufacturers of dietary supplements must adhere to appropriate structure/function claim practices, as opposed to making health claims, the latter of which is illegal in the United States when applied to dietary supplements.
So, what’s the difference between a health claim and a structure/function claim?
Health claims refer to how a nutrient or ingredient impacts a certain disease or health condition, whereas a structure/function claim refers to how a nutrient or ingredient impacts a specific structure/function of the body.
For example, a dietary supplement that contains fiber may claim that “dietary fiber maintains bowel regularity”, which is a perfectly accurate and valid general health statement. However, a claim that reads “cures cancer” would be a health claim, and would be wildly inaccurate for any dietary supplement. Health claims are only valid for drugs, not dietary supplements .
Per the FDA, every dietary supplement should contain the claim:
“This product is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”
Per the Federal Trade Commission, some other terms and phrases that you should be on the lookout for include:
- Secret ingredient
- Scientific breakthrough
- Ancient remedy
- Revolutionary technology
While it’s not necessarily illegal to use phrases such as these, they’re often indicative of a scam or some sort of fraud .
It’s required by law in the United States that any major food allergens (e.g. nuts, soy, shellfish) must be disclosed on supplement labels, per the Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act of 2004 .
However, it’s still important that you conduct your own additional research on the manufacturer you’re considering purchasing a dietary supplement from if you have a severe allergy. This is because even though you might see manufacturers’ claim that their product is “allergen-free”, terms such as these are not specifically regulated by the FDA.
Additionally, companies are not required to conduct any sort of allergen protein testing on their products. This is combined with the fact that it’s possible for cross-contamination to occur if the manufacturer uses the same facility that also processes common food allergens.
For those who have celiac disease or are vegan, make sure to look for products that are certified gluten-free and vegan, respectively. This will help to ensure you’re choosing products that will not conflict with your dietary needs.
Now that you know how to read supplement labels and what to be on the lookout for, you no longer have to be wary about picking out the dietary supplements that are right for you. Although the FDA may not regulate particular parameters of the dietary supplement manufacturing process, this doesn’t mean you have to be left in the dark! We hope you put these newly acquired supplement label reading skills to good use!