Make Sense of Your Supplement Labels
When embarking on a natural health regime, supplements can be a significant ongoing expense. While necessary, you want to make sure you get the best value for your investment. The easiest way to ensure quality products are to use professional-line companies that maintain a reputation for delivering the best, cleanest ingredients that are consistent with every batch. But there are times when you might be searching for supplements through retail or online sources. How do you make sure you are finding the best product available? Start with the supplement label. Reading a supplement label can be a challenge for anyone, but with a few tips you can begin to get the information you need.
To start with, there are three types of labels regulated by the FDA.
“Drug Facts” are for over the counter drugs. Since the FDA regulates drugs more thoroughly than supplements or food, drug fact labels are precise.
“Nutrition Facts” are for foods. Nutrition labels cover the US RDA for protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals.
“Supplement Facts” are for dietary supplements. Supplement labels can include information on vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, but also for ingredients without an established minimum daily value. The DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education act of 1994) law sets requirements for what needs to be on a supplement label, to distinguish supplements from drugs, which are more strictly regulated by the FDA. The DSHEA requirements are mostly prudent but there are a few loopholes. That is, there are accurate and informative labels, and ones that are misleading, inaccurate or incomplete.
Here are important areas to look at on the label.
Quantity, serving size, directions/suggested use, % daily value.
a. Quantity is simply how many servings of tabs, caps (or liquid/powder) is in the container. The cost-effectiveness of any supplement can be evaluated from this and your directions for use.
b. Serving size is the amount to be taken on one occasion. This is usually listed as capsules, tablets or softgels. The rest of the data on the label is based on this serving size. Serving size is estimated by the manufacturer based on safety and toxicity studies that are carried out on the active ingredients.
c. The most common units of measurement on a supplement label are in milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg), or liters for liquid. Biologically active substances (i.e. vitamins E and A) are measured in International Units (IU), a measure of activity instead of mass.
d. %DV (Percent Daily Value): Daily values are the amount of nutrients that a typical adult should get, according to the DRIs (Dietary Reference Intakes) set and frequently revised based on available scientific literature. Vitamins, minerals and macronutrients have %DVs. Many supplements commonly have doses that exceed the %DV, so this is not necessarily a concern.
2. Directions for Use are not standardized, so they are not always the most appropriate dosage for you. Individual needs can vary drastically, so finding how much of the supplement you should take is best done in consult with your ND or other knowledgeable practitioner. Despite the dosage, though, timing is sometimes mentioned on the label. If it does appear, it is wise to follow, since some supplements should be taken with food, some without, and some must be taken at specific times, like bedtime. Accurate directions are usually an indicator of a good label.
3. Active ingredients are usually listed with both weight and %DV in descending order of weight, such as 65 mg of vitamin C and 100% DV. Where no daily value has been formally established, an asterisk is used as a placeholder.
a. Herbs may have other info, such as form (powder, liquid), potency (such as tinctures 5:1), type of extraction (solid, powder or liquid), a dosage standardization if applicable, and sometimes the concentration of the active ingredients. There is no best way to take herbs—it depends on the individual and the desired effect.
b. Enzymes are listed by a measure of biological activity. If a supplement contains enzymes, they may be measured in a way that does not make sense, since each enzyme is measured differently. Stick to a reputable brand and look for my future blog on this complicated topic.
c. Proprietary Blends (PBs) are a common ingredient listing in many supplements, especially in Chinese patent medicine, herbal formulas and blends, or a base (as in ‘…in a special herbal base’). A label must list the total amount of the PB and all the ingredients in descending order but does not need to list the measure of each individual constituent. Many PBs are carefully formulated and legitimate protections of intellectual property, but they are also the place where most shenanigans occur. A company can hide source, quantity and quality from the consumer. Marketers will use deceptive labeling to “pad” the product and make it seem better than it is. If you want to make know for sure what you are taking, it may be best to avoid these.
4. Other ingredients: All tablets, caplets, wafers, liquids and soft gels are made with non-active ingredients that may be necessary for the manufacturing process but have little nutritional value. These substances are usually benign, like magnesium stearate or microcrystalline cellulose, but people may wish to avoid certain ingredients (i.e. gelatin which can be made from pigs), so these should be listed on the label. Labels may also declare the presence or absence of potential allergens.
5. Shelf life and lot number: The FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) do not require an expiration or ‘best by’ date on supplements, but all supplements diminish over time and it is good to know how old it is. A lot number is a sign of quality control from the company, if something goes wrong, they can find out what went wrong and fix it.
6. The Disclaimer: You’ll often see the following phrase on a supplement label: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) requires any product that makes a structure/function claim about how a product affects the body to carry this statement. DSHEA law is also the reason why supplements cannot explain their action on the body. They can only state what body system they act on. Again, this requirement does not reflect the quality or effectiveness of the supplement, so don’t let it deter you from using the product.
Like anything else, comprehending the information on a supplement label will take some practice. One way to practice is by looking at what you already take, and then reading carefully before you buy your next supplement. Continue to work on this and you will get better at finding the information you need. If you have more questions or would like help evaluating your supplements on an individual basis, we are happy to help at your next consult.