Dietary supplement use has skyrocketed in recent years, and data from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) revealed that almost 75% of Americans currently take dietary supplements. That’s four out of every five people! While dietary supplements still can’t replace a balanced diet and active lifestyle, think of them as your safety net – there to help bridge any nutrient gaps and support your overall health.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements as food. So, just like packaged foods require a Nutrition Facts label, all dietary supplements must display a Supplement Facts panel. Make sure you check out part one of this series: “How to Read a Food Label,” and consider this part two: “How to Read a Supplement Facts Panel.”
There’s four important sections to take a look at when you’re evaluating a supplement:
1. Serving Size
The serving size tells you two important things:
- The form of the supplement. Dietary supplements come in many different forms, including tablets, soft gels, capsules, powder, gummies, and more.
- The maximum dose that should be taken at once. Sometimes, the full recommended daily dose can be taken all at once, but other times the doses should be split up during the day for best absorption. Be sure to check for any additional directions for suggested use on the label to make sure you take your supplement correctly.
In this section, you’ll also find how many servings are in your dietary supplement container, which can help you figure out how long your supplement will last and when you may need to replenish your supply. Bonus if your supplement company offers auto-refill, so you’ll never worry about running out.
2. Nutrients: Amount Per Serving
Although some dietary supplements only contain one nutrient, the majority offer a combination of several different nutrients. That’s why most dietary supplements can’t assign one single dose to the supplement like a medication.
The Supplement Facts panel lists all the nutrients found in your supplement, as well as the dose per serving for each individual nutrient. You’ll notice that nutrients are expressed in several different units. The most common are mg (milligrams), mcg (micrograms), and mcg DFE (micrograms Dietary Folate Equivalents). Many nutrients have reference values established to help individuals figure out how much of each nutrient they need per day. The units displayed for each nutrient on the Supplement Facts panel matches the units used for these reference values.
Some dietary supplements include “proprietary blends.” These can be tricky because they’re still required to list each nutrient in the blend (from the highest amount to the lowest), but they don’t disclose the specific amount of each nutrient. So, with proprietary blends, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting.
Supplement Facts panels are also required to list total calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, total sugars, added sugars, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium when they’re present in measurable amounts.
3. Nutrients: % Daily Value (%DV)
The FDA established Daily Values (DVs) to help consumers figure out how much of a nutrient they should consume each day. The %DV for each nutrient tells you how much of the DV one serving of a supplement covers. For example, the Supplement Facts panel above shows that one tablet provides 67% of the DV (80 mcg) for vitamin K. That means that it meets 67% of your vitamin K needs for the day, and you’d need the remaining 33% (40 mcg) from food or other supplements. Remember that everyone has slightly different nutrient needs, but the %DV is a great tool to help you stay on the right track.
It’s not uncommon for dietary supplements to provide more than 100% of the DV, and in many cases, you can take higher amounts safely. However, it’s possible to get too much of certain nutrients, especially fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. If you’re ever concerned about getting too much of a particular nutrient, check to see if it has a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) – this is the maximum daily intake that’s unlikely to cause any adverse health effects.
Keep in mind that not all nutrients have a DV established. Nutrients with DVs are listed in the top portion of the Supplement Facts panel in a specific order, and nutrients without DVs are listed in the bottom portion of the panel with a symbol that leads to a short explanation. Check out boron and vanadium in the Supplement Facts panel above as an example.
4. Other Ingredients List
The other ingredients list details any other inactive ingredients present in your dietary supplement. Manufacturers usually need a few extra ingredients to bind supplements together or improve the texture, color, taste, consistency, or stability of a supplement. If you have any questions about a specific ingredient in a product, the supplement company should be able to answer them.
Like nearly three-fourths of Americans, you probably have dietary supplements in your home. So, take your new label reading skills and put them to good use – make sure the supplements you already use are still a good fit, and evaluate any new supplements carefully before adding them to your daily routine. And remember, the Supplement Facts panel means nothing if it isn’t accurate. For an added layer of safety and assurance, be sure to choose supplements that have been independently tested and certified for content accuracy and purity. This is your best guarantee that what’s in the product matches what’s on the label. Read more about third-party testing in this blog: “Our Supplements Are NSF® Certified – Why You Should Care.”