Understanding Supplement Labels

Eating a balanced diet is the best way to ensure that you’re meeting your vitamin and mineral needs. Still, under certain circumstances, taking a supplement may be necessary.

Shopping for supplements can be incredibly challenging.

With so many supplements out there and so much information packed onto every product label, it can be tricky to even know where to start.

Fortunately, once you figure out how to read the labels, shopping for supplements becomes a breeze.

In this article I will disclose some simple strategies to help you understand what to look for on supplement labels.

Regulations on supplements

Dietary supplements are products that are intended to supplement your diet.

They’re available in a variety of forms, including tablet, capsule, liquid, pill, and powder.

Some common types of supplements include vitamins, minerals, enzymes, herbs, extracts, probiotics, and amino acids.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the safety or effectiveness of supplements the same way that it monitors drugs.

This means that there’s no guarantee that a supplement is produced according to specified quality standards or that it remains consistent from batch to batch.

For this reason, it’s important to practice label reading while purchasing supplements to ensure that you’re getting the highest quality product possible.

Supplement facts

The supplement facts label includes most of the basic information about a supplement, including the serving size, number of servings per container, ingredients in the product, and amount of each nutrient that it contains (1)

Start by checking the serving size, which can give you an idea of how much you should take to reach the desired dosage.

It can also help you determine whether it should be divided into multiple doses during the day or if it can be taken all at once, which some people may prefer.

You should also look at its nutrient content, along with their amounts in each serving.

For vitamins and minerals, this is usually listed as the Percent Daily Value (%DV), which is based on the estimated nutritional needs of someone who’s on a 2,000-calorie diet.

For example, if a product contains 50 percent of the DV for a specific nutrient, this means that it contains approximately 50 percent of the amount that most people need for the entire day.

In some cases, supplements may contain over 100 percent of the DV for certain nutrients.

However, it’s important not to exceed the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), which is defined as the maximum daily intake that’s unlikely to cause adverse symptoms or side effects. (2)

Be sure to always check the UL prior to buying a new supplement. Additionally, it’s best to discuss supplement use with your healthcare provider, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions.

Toward the bottom of the supplement fact label, other ingredients are listed, including herbs, extracts, additives, and other compounds.

Ingredients

When selecting a supplement, reading the ingredient label is key.

Check carefully for ingredients like fillers, sweeteners, preservatives, and additives, all of which will be listed on the label.

Fillers are often used by manufacturers to help cut costs or add substance to tablets and capsules.

Some additives also increase the shelf life of supplements, help bind ingredients together, or improve the texture, color, taste, or consistency of products.

And although these ingredients may be necessary in some cases, it’s best to steer clear of supplements that contain a long list of additives.

A few of the most common additives found in supplements include:

  • cellulose
  • stearic acid
  • gelatin
  • soybean oil
  • maltodextrin
  • potassium sorbate
  • silicon dioxide
  • citric acid
  • titanium dioxide
  • soy lecithin
  • magnesium stearate
  • sorbitol

Supplements may also contain artificial colors, sweeteners, or flavorings, all of which will also be indicated on the label.

Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with those that are present in the highest amounts listed first.

Quality

Supplements that are sold in the United States are required to follow Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs), which ensure that companies adhere to approved processes for the manufacturing, packaging, labeling, and storage of supplements.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that manufacturers adhere to these guidelines, which helps supplements meet required specifications for strength, identity, purity, and composition.

Some manufacturers may also opt to undergo third-party testing to obtain certification from organizations like:

  • NSF International
  • United States Pharmacopeia (USP)
  • ConsumerLab
  • Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG)
  • Underwriters Laboratories (UL)
  • International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS)

These organizations set strict standards for the purity and potency of supplements, which is why certifications are typically a good indicator of quality.

Products that have received certification from these organizations often display a verification seal on the label. You can also usually find a list of certified products on the website of the third-party organization.

Some supplements may also provide a Certificate of Analysis (COA), which means that they have undergone third-party testing to verify that they meet required product specifications.

The COA for products is often available as a QR code on the label of the supplement, or it can be accessed on the website of the manufacturer.

If a COA is not provided for your supplement, you may also want to consider reaching out to the manufacturer directly to see if it’s available.

Terminology

Supplement labels often contain terms like “all natural” or “organic,” which may be confusing for consumers.

Here are a few of the most common terms you may see listed on your supplement.

Natural

According to the FDA, the terms “natural” and “all natural” refer to products that don’t contain any artificial or synthetic ingredients, including artificial flavors or colors (3)

However, keep in mind that use of the term “natural” is not strictly enforced in the United States.

Therefore, it’s still important to check the ingredients label to look for synthetic sweeteners, flavors, and colors.

Organic

Supplements can be marketed as organic, as long as they comply with the regulations of the National Organic Program and contain herbs, vitamins, or minerals derived from organic plants or animals (4).

Organic plants are grown without the use of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or prohibited substances, including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Meanwhile, organic animals are fed organic feed and not administered hormones or antibiotics (5).

Certified organic products typically have a green seal with the USDA logo on the packaging.

Food-based or whole food

Some products are referred to as “food-based” or “whole food” supplements.

These supplements are usually made using a concentrated blend of food substances that have been dehydrated.

While this may sound like a good option for health-conscious consumers, it’s important to note that this is not necessarily a good indicator of quality.

In fact, food-based or whole food supplements often contain synthetic ingredients, including additives, fillers, and flavorings.

GMO-free

Some supplements are advertised as GMO-free or non-GMO, meaning that they’re produced without any genetically modified ingredients.

Many people choose to avoid or limit their consumption of GMO ingredients due to concerns about food allergies, antibiotic resistance, and their potential long-term health effects. (6)

Products may also display a seal from The Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization that verifies that ingredients are non-GMO.

Health claims

Certain supplements are often touted as quick-fixes for common conditions, with some companies even claiming that their products can fight cancer, reverse diabetes, or slow signs of aging.

These claims are not only unfounded but also illegal in the United States.

In fact, under U.S. law, dietary supplements cannot claim to treat or cure disease, and any health claims must be backed by strong scientific evidence demonstrating a link between a specific condition and a food substance.

Furthermore, manufacturers can only state that a specific food substance reduces the risk of a condition — not that it can treat or cure it.

Avoid supplements that make these fraudulent statements or claim that they can treat a long list of health problems.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), some other phrases that could indicate fraud include: (7)

  • exclusive product
  • ancient remedy
  • miraculous results
  • secret ingredient
  • scientific breakthrough
  • revolutionary technology

You should also look out for testimonials promising unrealistic results or products that are said to have limited availability and require you to pay in advance.

Supplements that claim to offer results comparable to those of prescription drugs or offer “risk-free” trials or guarantees should also be avoided.

Allergies and dietary restrictions

If you have any allergies, it’s important to always check the label of your supplement carefully.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that labels must disclose the presence of any major food allergens (8)

Food allergens that are required to be disclosed include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, soy, wheat, and peanuts.

Some supplements may note that they’re allergen-free or don’t contain a specific allergen.

It’s important to note that these terms are not regulated by the FDA, and companies are not required to conduct allergen protein testing on their products.

Additionally, even if a product doesn’t contain a specific allergen, supplements may be processed in facilities that also handle common food allergens, which could result in cross-contamination.

If you have a severe food allergy, you may want to do additional research on the manufacturing processes of a company or reach out to them directly to determine whether a supplement contains potential allergens.

For those with celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, selecting products that are certified gluten-free may also be a good option to guarantee that a supplement doesn’t contain any traces of gluten.

Vegans and vegetarians may also want to watch out for animal-derived ingredients like gelatin, carmine, magnesium stearate, collagen, and lanolin.

You can also opt for products that are certified vegan, which ensures that a product is made without the use of animal products and not tested on animals.

Bottom line

The term “supplements” includes a range of products, including vitamins, minerals, probiotics, herbal extracts, amino acids, enzymes, and more.

The FDA doesn’t regulate the safety or effectiveness of supplements as strictly as it regulates drugs, which is why it’s important to check the label carefully when shopping for supplements.

Paying close attention to the ingredients, dosage, quality, and health claims is key to picking the right product for you.

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