How To Read A Supplement Label

by Larry Trivieri Jr

Before purchasing and using a nutritional supplement, it is important that you understand the quality of the product you are considering. In order to be better informed, we recommend that you always read the product label first. Here are some guidelines for doing so.

            Nutritional supplements (also known as “dietary supplements”) include vitamins, minerals, herbs, essential fatty acids (EFAs), and other nutrients derived or synthesized from food sources. Such supplements, according to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, are not considered drugs and therefore are not required to be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before entering the marketplace. However, the FDA does regulate what claims supplement manufacturers can make about their products, and this information is usually contained on the product label.

            Typically, product labels consist of a statement of identity, a structure-function claim, the form of product and net contents, directions for use, a supplement facts panel, a listing of other ingredients, and the name and address of the manufacturer. In the statement of identity you should find the brand name of the product and wording that clearly identifies the product as a “dietary supplement.” This will be followed by the structure-function claim, which explains the health benefits of the nutrients the product contains, along with a required disclaimer saying, “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

            Structure-function claims cannot say that a product or nutrient treats a disease, so be wary of any products for which such claims are made. But structure-function claims can state the role or function of the nutrient or nutrients in the body. For example, a multivitamin/multimineral formula with a structure function claim stating “Helps support immune function” is perfectly acceptable. The federally required disclaimer means exactly what it says—that the FDA has not evaluated the claim, and no diagnostic, treatment, prevention, or curative claims can be made about the product in question. This is simply a formality in accordance with the DSHEA legislation.

            The form of product and net contents informs you about the form the product is in and the amount of its contents. Products can come in a variety of forms, such as capsule, tablets, liquid, or powder. If capsule or tablet forms are used, the label should tell you the amount of capsules or tablets the product contains. If the product is in liquid or powder form, the total weight (usually ounces) will be listed.

            The directions for use on the label tell you how the product is intended to be taken. For example, the label may say, “Take one capsule daily.” Pay attention to these directions and do not exceed the serving size of the product that is recommended.

            The supplement facts panel is something you should pay particular attention to. There, you will find the listed serving size (e.g., one tablet, one capsule, etc.) of the product, as well as the active ingredients it contains, along with the amount of each ingredient per serving and the total percentage of the recommended daily intake (RDI) the product supplies for each nutrient. If an asterisk follows any of the ingredients, this means that no daily value has been established for that particular nutrient.

            The other ingredients list supplies a complete listing of all the ingredients used in the formulation and manufacture of the product. Such ingredients will be listed in descending order, based on how much of each ingredient was used, with the most prevalent ingredient listed first, and the least prevalent ingredient listed last. Common ingredients in this listing include gelatin, water, binders, fillings, and coatings. Ideally, you should look for products that do not contain the last three.

            Finally, the label should supply you with the name and address of the product’s manufacturer or distributor, including the zip code and, ideally, a telephone number or web site address through which you can contact the company. If the product you are considering does not include all of the above information, we advise that you avoid purchasing it. And definitely be suspicious of any product that comes with a label claiming it can cure or treat a specific disease condition.

(This article is adapted from The Acid-Alkaline Lifestyle by Larry Trivieri Jr and Neil Raff, MD.

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