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Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner and personal trainer and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.

5 Steps to Reading a Supplement Nutrition Label

There is a huge amount of information on the nutrition label of supplements. Deciphering it all can be a pretty daunting prospect! You could be forgiven for thinking that you need a degree in nutrition to work out exactly what ingredients are present and in what quantities.

That’s why we’ve put together this 5 step guide on how to read the nutrition value on any supplement label. Here’s to knowing precisely what you’re getting for your hard-earned cash, and more importantly what exactly you are putting in your body!

Before we take you through our top tips though, let's consider what a nutritional supplement really is…

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What is a nutritional supplement?

A nutritional supplement is a product containing one, or a number of, dietary ingredients which can help to supplement someone’s regular diet. They do not include conventional food items and are most commonly consumed in gel, capsule, tablet, liquid or powder form.

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act defines a dietary ingredient as any one of the following:

  • Vitamins;
  • Minerals;
  • Amino acids;
  • Herbs or other botanicals;
  • Concentrates, metabolites, constituent extracts and;
  • Dietary substances to supplement the diet.

6 Steps to Reading your Supplement Facts Label

1. Net weight of the product

This information is usually displayed at the top of the main advertising sticker, an inch or so beneath the lower edge of the lid. This figure, normally in grams (powders, gels), milliliters (liquids), or numerical count (tablets, capsules), details how much of the supplement is contained within the packaging.

The good news for you, the consumer, is that this information is a legal requirement under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which means you will always know exactly how much of something you’re getting for your money.

2. Supplement facts label

Probably the most important area of the packaging as far as working out exactly which ingredients are in your product and in what quantities is the supplement facts panel.

There are 4 key elements to these nutrition facts that you should definitely pay attention to if you are to fully understand what you’re putting in your body!

1. Serving size:

This is the maximum quantity of the product recommended to be taken on any single occasion. For example, if the label on a creatine supplement says to take 2 capsules then that is the serving size.

2. Servings per container:

Immediately beneath the serving size is normally information regarding the number of those servings within the package. For example, if the serving size is 2 capsules, like above, and the product contains 100 capsules, then there are 50 servings in that product.

3. Nutrients

The nutrients listed on any given supplement facts label are divided into those “above the line” and those “below the line”

1. Above the line:

These ingredients are governed by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act which separates them into mandatory and voluntary categories. If mandatory nutrients are present in significant enough quantities then they must appear on the label. Voluntary ingredients need not appear on the label unless the product is making claims about that ingredient.

2. Below the line:

These are defined as ‘other dietary ingredients’ which refers to blends and botanicals for instance. These must only appear on the supplement facts label if they are present in significant quantities.

As you have probably noticed, not all ingredients in the product have to appear on the label by law, so be careful!

4. Allergen information

This can be a particularly important section of any label and should be considered in detail if you suffer from any kind of allergy. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires supplement products to list the major 8 allergens, which cover around 90% of all food allergies: 1. Milk; 2. Eggs; 3. Fish; 4. Shellfish; 5. Tree nuts; 6. Peanuts; 7. Soybeans; 8. Wheat;

3. Ingredients

Nutrients and other ingredients, which can include substances like binders, colorings, fillers and sweeteners, within a supplement product, are listed in descending order of weight. That means the ingredients which appear at the top of this list make up the largest proportion of your products' net weight. This can be a quick and easy way of identifying whether the particular supplement under consideration may or may not have the ingredient you’re looking for in suitable quantities.

A workout you have to try:

4. Proprietary blends

A proprietary blend is simply a collection of ingredients where the total quantity is displayed, but the precise quantity of each individual ingredient may not be disclosed. These often appear as catchy headlines such as “buffering blend” or “shredding blend”, designed to catch people’s attention without revealing exactly what is in them!

These blends are included for any number of possible reasons, and none of them are particularly helpful to consumers. The bottom line is you don’t know the exact quantities of ingredients in these blends, which means you have no idea if you’re getting an optimum dose of an effective ingredient or just a load of filler which does nothing for you!

5. Certifications

Nutritional supplements are not covered by the FDA. There are, though, a number of non-profit groups that are recognized as certifying bodies. The four major certifying bodies in the United States are …

  • Consumerlab.com
  • NSF International
  • US Pharmacopeia (USP)
  • Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)

For a supplement to carry and of these certifications on their label they have to be vetted through a rigorous testing program that covers the verification of the claims on the label, toxicology, contaminants, ingredient purity, and bioavailability. The GMP label verifies that the supplement was manufactured in accordance with the FDA good manufacturing practices.

6. One more thing…

Just because a supplement product recommends a daily dosage, that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the optimum dose for you to obtain the most benefit from the ingredients in question.

Funnily enough, supplement companies, like most other businesses, are interested solely in making money, which means they are more than happy to short-change you when it comes to the contents of their products if they can!

As a result, our final piece of advice when it comes to reading a supplement facts label is to check the recommended serving on the product against what the science really tells us.

Summary

You now have a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the complicated world of nutritional supplement labels. Consider this information carefully before parting with any of your hard-earned cash. Avoid proprietary blends like the plague and always double-check the dosage recommended on your product with the scientifically proven optimum dose of any ingredient!

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