Sneaky Things to Watch for On Supplement Labels

Dietary supplements pack the shelves of at least one aisle in almost every store in the country. Few people know how to correctly read and make sense of supplement labels. Reading supplement labels is almost more important than reading food labels, even though both are vitally important. There are a few items on supplement labels you need to check to ensure you are purchasing what you need and are taking the right amount of the supplement. The graphic shown below shares a few of the top items to check when reading a supplement label:

Supplement Label 1Items to pay close attention to include:

  • Serving Size:  Many people purchase supplements and assume that a serving equals one capsule or tablet. This is often far from correct. Many supplements have a serving size that requires multiple capsules or tablets be taken. For example, some calcium supplements require 4-6 tablets  per serving, so it’s important to know what the serving size is. Failing to take the full serving size may mean you are not receiving enough of the supplement to have the desired effect. It is also important to know the number of capsules or pills per serving so you can calculate how many days the bottle will last if you take the recommended serving. It is important to note that the number of milligrams for each item listed in the list of nutrients reflects the amount in one serving. If the supplement’s serving is two capsules, the amount of each nutrient shows what is in two capsules, not a single capsule.
  • List of Nutrients:  This portion of the label shows what nutrients, herbs, minerals or other beneficial ingredients the supplement contains. It is important to read this portion of the label to make sure the supplement contains what you think it does. It is also important to read the list of nutrients to ensure the supplement contains nutrients in therapeutic amounts. For example, I recently reviewed a supplement whose front label stated the supplement contained Zinc. When reviewing the list of nutrients, I found the supplement only contained 1 mg of Zinc – not enough to have a therapeutic effect. When reading the list of nutrients, pay close attention to long lists of ingredients listed as a single item. In the example above, the adrenal blend includes a wide array of herbs and enzymes known to benefit the adrenals. The blend includes 19 different nutrients included in the indicated 302 milligrams. This means the total amount of each item is fairly small. This label is from a supplement company I respect very much and use personally, so I know this blend is effective. Other supplement companies may not be as reliable.
  • Other Ingredients:  This is potentially the most important part of a supplement label. The example shown above is from a company that uses no fillers or excipients, so the only “other” ingredient is a non-GMO vegetable cellulose capsule. Other supplements may use ingredients that are known to be allergenic, artificial, or potentially toxic. In the example shown below, note the wide variety of other ingredients, many of which are artificial and/or potentially toxic or allergenic:

Supplement Label 2

It is also important to note on the label shown above that a single serving is four gummies, and that one bottle only contains enough gummies for 15 days. Also note that this supplement contains as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. If a vitamin is sourced from whole foods, it should not need to have caffeine added as an energy booster. Natural, food-based vitamins very naturally boost energy levels without the addition of caffeine.

Another item to take note of on supplement labels is:

  • % Daily Value:  This refers to the percent of the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) the indicated nutrient provides. It is important to note that the RDA references the minimum amount of nutrients required to remain alive, not the amounts needed to achieve maximum health. It is therefore neither uncommon nor dangerous for a supplement  to contain 1200% of the RDA, which is common on many B12 supplements. I personally don’t pay any attention to the RDA, as I know maximum health usually requires higher amounts of nutrients than those reflected by the RDA. Many nutrients contained in supplements do not have established RDA. Those nutrients typically show a cross symbol or an asterisk under the RDA column.

Here is one more example of a supplement label. This label is for a liquid, so the nutrient list shows the nutrients contained in the liquid, and the actual ingredients are shown as “Ingredients::

Supplement Label 3

Your next assignment is to go read the labels for the supplements you take. Let me know if you find anything surprising!

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Dr. Pamela Reilly is a Naturopathic Physician dedicated to helping people improve their health and eliminate symptoms using natural, integrative methods. She has over 25 years of experience and has helped men, women and children improve their health using a holistic, client-centered focus. She sees clients in Indianapolis, does house calls, and also conducts consultations via Skype or telephone. Please feel free to contact her or visit her Consultations page for more information. Dr. Pamela speaks nationwide on a wide variety of health topics and welcomes speaking invitations.

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4 Responses to Sneaky Things to Watch for On Supplement Labels

  1. Laura Rocks says:

    Dr. Pamela, I have learned a lot from reading your posts. Are there any vitamins or minerals that are dangerous to have in large quantities? For the ones that aren’t harmful: does taking a high dose mean you actually use everything you take? I’ve heard that much of what we think is helping us gets filtered out in our urine.

    • Good question, Laura. ANY supplement can be dangerous in large quantities, and any supplement can cause problems if someone is allergic to one of its ingredients. Whether or not you absorb what you take depends on what type of supplements you take. I recommend only using vitamins and supplements derived from whole foods and not using synthetic supplements.

  2. Love what you are doing Dr. Pamela, just wanted to swing by and say thank you!!! Absolutely love your blog and the information that you are providing. Supplements are so scary. I tell people to read the back of their labels all the time and to research what they are putting into their bodies especially as a type 1 diabetic. Awesome read!

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