How to Read Supplement Labels

Not All Supplements Are Created EqualBy Susan Brown

Vitamins and minerals can promote proper cellular functioning, boost the immune system, strengthen bones and tissues, and help fight disease.  Dietary supplements are meant to be taken as part of a healthy diet.  The quality of ingredients in the supplement is vital to the overall effectiveness.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires specific information appear on dietary supplement labels.  Many of us have an increased awareness of the state of our health and are diligently reading product labels.  How many of us can actually interpret everything we read?  You may find yourself wondering, “What is a proprietary blend?”  “What does standardized mean?”  To help simplify and identify ingredients, here is a basic list of information you will find on a product label. 

  • Serving Size – The manufacturer’s suggested serving size expressed in the appropriate unit.  For example:  tablet, capsule, softgel, packet or teaspoonful.  As a general rule, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s suggested serving size in order to obtain the full nutritional benefit.   
  • Amount Per Serving –  This listing sits atop the listing of nutrients contained in the supplement followed by the quantity present in each serving. 
  • Supplement Facts –  Labeling must list the name and quantity of each nutrient provided in the supplement. 
  • IU or International Unit is a standard unit of measure for fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D and E.
  • Milligram (mg) and microgram (mcg) are units of measurement for water soluble minerals and for vitamins such as vitamin C and B complex.
  • Percent Daily Value (DV) tells what percentage of the recommended daily intake for each nutrient is provided by the supplement.  This is intended as a guide for adults and children aged 4 and older.
  • An * under DV indicates that a daily value has not been established for that specific nutrient.
  • Other Ingredients lists all additional ingredients used to formulate the supplement in decreasing order by weight.  Nondietary ingredients such as fillers, artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, or binders must be listed by common name and by weight in descending order of predominance.
  • The manufacturer’s or distributor’s name and place of business or phone number are required to be on the label. 
  • Storage information and expiration date.  Vitamins are vulnerable to heat, light and air.  Most supplements should be stored in a cool, dry place in their original containers,  tightly capped and out of reach of children. Some products require refrigeration.  Product should be used before the expiration date to ensure full potency.   

Here are some of the less familiar terms that will help identify exactly what your supplement contains: 

  • Active Ingredients are the substances that produce intended effects in supplements.  Herbal products contain plant compounds.  Nutritional supplements contain vitamins, minerals or essential nutrients.  Supplements containing whole plant ingredients are often standardized to contain specific amounts of active compounds in each serving. 
  • Amino Acid Chelates are bonding agents that attach to mineral molecules to aid absorption.  Chelation defines a complex chemical process of electrically charged molecules in the digestive tract which regulate how nutrients pass from the intestines into the bloodstream.  Essential minerals bound to amino acid chelates stand a better chance of retention by the body to support cell functioning.
  • Binder means an inactive ingredient (one that has no medicinal effect on the body,  such as starch, salt, or sugar) used to hold together the contents of a pill or tablet.
  • Cellulose is a dietary fiber that is the main component of plant cell walls.  Cellulose’s ability to absorb moisture and coat ingredients in a fine powder make it the ingredient of choice for anti-caking applications.  Shredded and grated cheeses, spice mixes, and powdered drink mixes are just a few of the many food items that take advantage of cellulose as an anti-caking agent.
  • Dicalcium Phosphate is an ionic salt, meaning it’s made up of charged particles of calcium and phosphate. It is used as an anti-caking agent and as a dihydrate to keep product fresh.  Dicalcium phosphate can be found in breakfast cereals, dog treats, enriched flour and noodles. 
  • Excipients are components of a finished supplement (or pharmaceutical)  product other than the active ingredient that are added during formulation for a specific purpose and generally have well-defined functions in a supplement product.  This can include the assurance of efficient production of the product, taste improvement agents, smooth coatings to ease oral ingestion or assurance of an adequate shelf life. 
  • Filler means an inactive ingredient (one that has no medicinal effect on the body, such as lactose or starch) that is used to provide consistency and uniformity in the size and weight of a pill or tablet.
  • Gelatin is a colorless, flavorless solid substance derived from collagen obtained from animal by-products.  It is commonly used as a gelling agent in a wide range of foods such as desserts, marshmallows, candy corn, fruit snacks and jelly beans.  It is also used as a stabilizer or thickener in yogurt, cream cheese and margarine.  Gelatin is used for supplements and pharmaceuticals as it makes swallowing capsules easier.  Vegetarians should look for products that use capsules derived from cellulose. 
  • Inactive Ingredients are inert substances with no medicinal or nutritional value.  These ingredients, present in minute amounts, serve as delivery agents for the active ingredients. 
  • Magnesium Stearate is a magnesium salt containing stearic acid.  Stearic acid is a saturated fat common in our food supply.  Stearic acid is metabolized by the body to oleic acid, the same monounsaturated fat found in olive oil.  Stearic acid can be found in cocoa, meat, poultry, grains and dairy products.  Magnesium stearate has natural lubricant properties.  A small amount of magnesium stearate added to complex formulas with multiple ingredients and inherently different chemical properties can prevent the ingredients from clumping, ensuring a consistently maintained mixture.
  • Proprietary Blend.  A proprietary blend is a list of ingredients that are exclusive to a particular manufacturer.  With proprietary blends, specific amounts of individual ingredients in the blend do not have to be listed in order to protect the formula. However, the components of the blend must be listed in order of predominance by weight.
  • Silicon Dioxide is a trace mineral which means it is needed in minimal amounts to maintain health.  Silicon plays a significant role in the development and maintenance of healthy bones and joints.  Silicon dioxide can be found naturally in fruits, green vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and even garlic.  Silicon functions as an anti-caking agent,  preventing ingredients from binding together by absorbing moisture.
  • Standardization.  This is a process used by manufacturers to ensure batch-to-batch consistency in their products and to provide a measure of quality control. 

Equally important to what is in your supplement is what it does not contain.  Quality manufacturers avoid products that may cause allergic reactions or that some people may want to avoid in their diet.  These could include soy, gluten, wheat, sugar, dairy, nuts, shellfish, hydrogenated oils and artificial coloring, flavoring and preservatives.   A sampling of the manufacturers whose products do not contain hidden fillers, coatings, artificial colors or excipients: 

Pure Encapsulations  All two-piece capsules are hypoallergenic and vegetarian.   There are absolutely no added coatings, binders, shellacs, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners or colors, fragrance or excipients in their products that would disrupt or diminish the bioavailability of any of their ingredients.  They do not use magnesium stearate in any of their formulas.  Their products do not contain wheat, gluten, nuts, eggs, preservatives or hydrogenated oils.

Innate Response  Innate sources only the finest raw foods.  Their products are all tested for pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals. They utilize rigorous standards for allergen testing and many of their products are free of gluten, dairy and soy.  They concentrate on their own raw materials, manufacture their own products, assure finished food potency and provide unsurpassed quality assurance through vigorous onsite and 3rd party testing.

New Chapter  manufacturers whole food vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements in an easily absorbed bio-available form.  Ingredients are sourced from nature’s bounty of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs and are formulated to deliver the full spectrum of nature’s benefits. 

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