Last updated: December 23, 2020
Have you ever wondered how to read supplement labels? It’s important to understand what’s found on the dietary supplement label before purchasing and taking a product, as this information is an indicator of the supplement’s efficacy, safety, and quality. Even for the informed consumer, however, the information found on a supplement label can be confusing.
Below, we decipher what you should know about dietary supplement labels, including the “Supplement Facts” panel, ingredients, product label claims, and quality considerations.
Dietary supplement label regulations
In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). The act includes supplement label requirements by which manufacturers must abide, such as what is included in the “Supplement Facts” panel, ingredient list, and product claims. (3)
“Supplement Facts” vs. “Nutrition Facts”
There are a few key differences between the “Supplement Facts” panel, found on dietary supplement labels, and the “Nutrition Facts” panel, found on food labels, which are outlined in the table below.
Understanding the “Supplement Facts” panel
The “Supplement Facts” panel is the portion of the product label that contains the ingredient and nutritional information of the product. Below, we define each of the terms you’ll find there.
The serving size refers to the number of units that should be taken at a time. For example, if the product’s suggested usage directs you to take one capsule, three times per day, the serving size on the “Supplement Facts” panel will be one capsule. (3) The rest of the information found in the panel relates to this serving size.
It’s important to note that there are no FDA standard serving sizes and suggested usage instructions for dietary supplements. The supplement manufacturer can determine the suggested serving as long as it complies with the requirement to ensure product safety. (4) When comparing the amount of ingredients in different products, it’s important to pay attention to the serving size on the label.
Servings per container
You will see the servings per container included in the panel when the number of servings is different from the total number of units in the product. For example, if a product with 100 tablets has a serving size of two tablets, the supplement label will specify 50 servings per container. If a product has 100 tablets and the serving size is one tablet, the servings per container are not required to be listed. (3)
Amount per serving
The amount per serving is a column in the “Supplement Facts” panel that indicates the dose of each ingredient in a single serving. The amount per serving is listed in various units of measurement depending on the standard used for each ingredient, which include micrograms (mcg), milligrams (mg), grams (g), or international units (IU). For example, you may see a multivitamin product contains 40 mg vitamin C and 400 IU vitamin D per serving.
You might also see equivalent terms, such as “each teaspoon contains” or “amount per 2 tablets”, used to replace the “amount per serving” statement. (3)
Percent (%) daily value
The % daily value, another column in the panel, specifies how the amount of each ingredient contributes to the daily requirement of that ingredient based on a 2,000 calorie diet. (3) Certain ingredients, such as medicinal herbs, do not have an established daily value. These will still be listed in the “Supplement Facts” panel with a symbol in the column referring to the footnote “daily value not established”. (3)
Dietary supplement labels differentiate between dietary ingredients, which are found in the “Supplement Facts” panel, and non-dietary ingredients, which are found below the panel in an ingredient statement (labeled as either “Ingredients” or “Other ingredients”). While dietary ingredients are essentially the intended active ingredients in the supplement, non-dietary ingredients include any ‘non-medicinal’ compounds used to manufacture the product.
However, if an ingredient is already listed in the “Supplement Facts” panel, it is not required to be listed in the ingredient statement. (3) For example, if magnesium malate is used in a supplement to provide the dietary ingredient magnesium, the manufacturer can include “Magnesium (as magnesium malate)” in the “Supplement Facts” panel. Magnesium malate will then not need to be provided in the ingredient statement.
Additional ingredients in supplements, commonly referred to as excipients, will be found in the ingredient statement. Excipients are not intended to have active effects but are used to assist in manufacturing and to improve factors such as the supplement’s stability (safety), appearance, texture, or taste. Excipients used in supplements must comply with the same regulations as food additives and be generally recognized as safe (GRAS). (6)
According to the American Botanical Council, standardized herbal supplements are chemically designed to contain a consistent amount of a specific active constituent of the herbal extract. (1) On the label for herbal supplements, you can often find the phrase “extract standardized to contain…” in the “Supplement Facts” panel. For example, a product containing a standardized curcumin extract may list “Curcumin extract (Curcuma longa root extract standardized to 95% curcuminoids)”.
Proprietary ingredient or blend
A proprietary ingredient is an ingredient, or a combination of dietary ingredients, unique to the manufacturer. The total amount per serving of the proprietary blend is required to be listed on the “Supplement Facts” panel. The manufacturer is not required to provide the amount of each ingredient in the blend, but they must be listed in descending order by each ingredient’s weight. (3) A concern with proprietary blends is that because not all amounts of ingredients are disclosed, individuals may be at risk of consuming excessive amounts of these ingredients.
A variety of different statements about a dietary supplement or its ingredients may be seen on a dietary supplement label, such as health claims, structure/function claims, and other label claims.
Health claims, which describe the effect of a substance on reducing the risk of a disease, can be used on supplement labels with FDA approval. For example, a product label can state “calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.” Health claims must be supported by scientific evidence and are evaluated prior to being used. (3)
A second type of claim, known as a structure/function claim, refers to the role of a substance in maintaining structure or function of the body. This includes statements such as “fiber maintains bowel regularity”. These types of claims do not require FDA pre-approval, but they must be used along with the disclaimer “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” (3)
The FDA website provides detailed guidance for claims that can be made on supplement labels.
Other label claims
Additionally, there are a variety of terms that may appear on food or dietary supplement labels that are commonly used for marketing products, yet they do not currently have a formal legal definition regulated and enforced by the FDA. Be wary of label claims such as:
- Organic (2)
The FDA’s current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) are guidelines to ensure that dietary supplement manufacturing, packaging, and labeling meets safety and quality standards. Both U.S. and foreign companies that sell dietary supplements must abide by these regulations, which include standards for personnel, physical grounds, equipment, and production control systems (quality control). (7)
FDA oversight of dietary supplement labels is limited, and safety monitoring is generally conducted post-market (once the product enters the marketplace). Manufacturers are required to report adverse event occurrences to the FDA, and the FDA has the authority to remove harmful or potentially harmful products from the market. (8)
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 identified the top eight food allergens. The FDA requires these major food allergens to be listed on food and dietary supplement labels, which include:
- Tree nuts
- Wheat (5)
There are many additional ingredients that have been associated with food allergies or sensitivities that are currently not identified by this law, such as gluten, sesame, and food color additives. The FDA is currently monitoring some of these ingredients and may require specific labeling for them in the future. (5) If you have a known food allergy or intolerance, you should always consult the ingredient list on the supplement label and check with a manufacturer if required.
The FDA does not currently require an expiration date to be listed on a dietary supplement label. Manufacturers can voluntarily list the expiry date if it is accurate and supported by evidence. (3) You may see products include either the expiry date (EXP), also known as the best before date, or the manufacturing date (MFG).
In addition to abiding by the mandatory cGMPs, supplement manufacturers may voluntarily acquire certification from third-party companies. These independent agencies assess and verify different factors involved in product development, manufacturing, labeling, and distribution. Examples of third-party certifications you may see on a supplement label include:
- Certified B Corporation ®
- Certified Gluten Free
- Certified Halal
- Certified Vegan
- International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS)
- Kosher check
- Non-GMO Verified
- NSF Certified for Sport
- USDA certified organic
A third-party certification can provide assurance that certain supplement label claims we referred to above, such as “organic”, are substantiated. The certifications, if any, that are important to you will depend largely on your individual dietary needs and restrictions, lifestyle choices, and personal preferences.
The bottom line
The dietary supplement and nutrition industry is an evolving landscape, making it essential to stay informed. You can use the tips in this guide to help you understand dietary supplement labels when selecting and using products. If you’re a patient, speak with your integrative healthcare practitioner about supplements in your wellness plan.
- Blumenthal, M. (2003). The ABC clinical guide to herbs (1st edition). American Botanical Council. http://cms.herbalgram.org/ABCGuide/FrontMatter/Introduction.html
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2018a, January 3). Label claims for food & dietary supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/label-claims-food-dietary-supplements
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2018b, September 20). Dietary supplement labeling guide. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/dietary-supplement-labeling-guide
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2019, July 22). Questions and answers on dietary supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/information-consumers-using-dietary-supplements/questions-and-answers-dietary-supplements
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020a, November 10). Food allergies. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/food-allergies
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020b, November 10). Guidance documents & regulatory information by topic (food and dietary supplements). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/guidance-regulation-food-and-dietary-supplements/guidance-documents-regulatory-information-topic-food-and-dietary-supplements
- Food and Drug Administration. (2007). Current good manufacturing practice in manufacturing, packaging, labeling, or holding operations for dietary supplements. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2007/06/25/07-3039/current-good-manufacturing-practice-in-manufacturing-packaging-labeling-or-holding-operations-for
- Office of the Commissioner. (2015, July 15). FDA 101: Dietary supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/fda-101-dietary-supplements