The Supplement Label

A supplement label looks somewhat like a food label. Required by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the label must provide specific information you can use to make an informed decision:

  • Statement of identity. Look for the product name, perhaps "ginseng." The term "dietary supplement" or a descriptive phrase, such as "vitamin and mineral supplement," also must appear. If the product is a botanical, the plant part must be identified.
  • Net quantity of the ingredients. That might be the number of capsules, perhaps "sixty capsules," in the package or container, or the weight.
  • Disclaimer with any structure/function claim. See "Claim Check!" in this chapter.
  • Supplement Facts. This gives the serving (dosage), the amount, the percent Daily Values (DVs) per serving if appropriate, and the active ingredient.
  • Directions for use. This might indicate how often to take the supplement, perhaps "Take one capsule daily"; whether the supplement is best taken with or without food; safety tips; or storage guidelines. Suggested dosage is meaningless when little is known about the benefits and risks of many supplements.

Anatomy of Dietary Supplement Labels

Statement of Identity


a dietary supplement

Net quantity of contents

Structure- -

function claim

Directions -

Supplement — Facts panel

Other ingredients in descending order of predominance and by common name or proprietary blend.

Net quantity of contents

"When you need to perform your best, take ginseng." Ttiis statement his not been evaluated by the Food and Drag Administration. Tliis product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

DIRECTIONS FOR USE: Take one capsule daily.

"When you need to perform your best, take ginseng." Ttiis statement his not been evaluated by the Food and Drag Administration. Tliis product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

DIRECTIONS FOR USE: Take one capsule daily.

Supplement Facts

Serving Size 1 Capsule

Oriental Ginseng, powdered (root)

- Other ingredients: ABC Company

Name and place of business of manufacturer, packer or distributor. This is the address to write for more product information.

  • Ingredients. The list must be in descending order by common name or proprietary blend. See "Ingredients Labeling, Too" in this chapter.
  • Name and address of the manufacturer, packager, or distributor. Use this contact information to get more product information.

As an option, supplement labels also may carry product claims: nutrient content claims, health claims, or structure/function claims.

Check the Supplement Facts

How do you know about the nutrition in a dietary supplement? Check the Supplement Facts panel, which must appear on all supplements. Its format is similar to the familiar Nutrition Facts you see on food products. To use the Supplement Facts panel:

  • Check the serving size, or an appropriate unit, such as a capsule, packet, or teaspoonful. That's what the facts are based on. Unlike Nutrition Facts for foods, serving size isn't standardized for supplements; neither is the potency, or nutrient amount, per serving. Manufacturers make that decision.
  • Check the quantity and the percent Daily Values (DVs) for any of fourteen nutrients, including sodium, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, if the levels are significant. Other vitamins or minerals must be listed, too, if they are added or referred to with a nutrient content claim on the label.

On the Supplement Facts, you probably won't find a nutrient if it isn't present. For example, cod liver oil lists fat on the panel, but a calcium supplement won't because it doesn't contain fat.

If the supplement has a substance with no Daily Value, the quantity per serving must be listed—for example, "15 mg omega-3 fatty acids."

Claim Check!

Confused about marketing claims for supplements? Not surprising! Some nutrient content claims and health claims are backed by scientific consensus, yet many (structure/function claims) aren't, at least not yet. One exception:

"Calcium helps build strong bones." Loose supplement regulations, including many product claims that push "over the edge" of credibility, leave many consumers misguided, bewildered, or both.

Some product claims are clearly illegal—for example, "cures cancer," "treats arthritis," " prevents impotence." According to FDA regulation, no dietary supplement can legally state or imply that it can help diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.

Here's what marketers can claim about supplements—and how the claims are regulated—on package labels. Since claims for food and for dietary supplements are similar, see chapter 11 for more information.

Nutrient Content Claims. "High in calcium." "Excellent source of folate." "Iron-free." Like food labels, dietary supplement labels can carry nutrient content claims if they contain a specific level of a nutrient in a serving. The claims, regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are similar to nutrient content claims for food. For example, any product with at least 20 percent of the Daily Value per serving can be labeled as "high" or "excellent source" of that nutrient.

What does a nutrient content claim tell you? It's just a clue. You need to read the Supplement Facts to know the specific nutrient content of one dose, or "serving."

Why would a supplement be "iron-free"? It's for the age fifty-plus market, when women's iron needs drop.

Health Claims. "Calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis." "Folic acid may reduce the risk of some neural tube defects." Health claims that describe the link between nutrients or food substances and health can be used on supplements. These FDA-regulated statements are based on scientific consensus—you can trust these claims. For approved health claims for food and supplement labeling, see the Appendices. Some qualified health claims have been approved for supplements but not for food products: for example, B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12) and reduced risk for vascular disease.

Structure/Function Claims. Echinacea: "boosts the immune system." Zinc: "helps maintain good immunity." Garlic: "helps maintain cardiovascular health." Lutein: "helps maintain healthy eyes."

Need more strategies for appropriate supplement use? Check here for "how-tos":

  • Find out about safe supplement use for children—see chapter 16.
  • Get savvy about ergogenic supplements for athletic performance—see chapter 19.
  • Sort through misleading information about supplements—see chapter 24.
  • Talk to a qualified nutrition expert about safe and appropriate supplements for you and your family—see chapter 24.

Structure/function claims may appear on dietary supplements as well as on food labels. They describe what the ingredient is intended to do to in the body or to promote health. Research to support these claims may be limited, with little or no scientific consensus.

By regulation, the manufacturer, not the FDA, must substantiate that the structure-function statements are truthful and not misleading. Because the FDA does not approve them, supplement labels with these claims must carry an FDA disclaimer: "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."

Ingredients Labeling, Too

The label shows ingredients, with their common name or proprietary blend, in descending order by weight. If an ingredient isn't in the Supplement Facts, it must be in the ingredients statement—for example, rose hips as the vitamin C source. Besides active ingredients, other substances—fillers, colorings or flavors, sweeteners—must be listed.

For herbal and other botanical supplements, potency often differs when different parts of a plant are used. If the supplement contains these ingredients, the label must identify what part of the plant it comes from—for example, ginseng may come from a root. The ingredient source may appear on an ingredients statement or near the statement of identity.

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