The Facts about Supplement Facts

    The dietary supplement industry has grown exponentially over the past few decades; what used to be a few retail shelves displaying a limited number of well-known supplements like vitamin C, calcium, or multivitamin formulations has now grown to protein powders, herbal extracts, and various other preparations with claims to improve your fitness, help you lose weight or provide support to various bodily functions. Reading the labels of these products can be a daunting experience; so how does one decide what product is best?

    There has been much written of the claims made on dietary supplements and that is another article in itself. For now, I’ll keep it simple and limit this just to the Supplement Facts panel that should be on every dietary supplement product. If not there, the product is already in violation of FDA rules so that’s a pretty good clue that you shouldn’t make that purchase. But what should you be looking at?  By examining the Supplement Facts box, it’s easy to compare nutrition information from one product to the next to determine which one is best for you.

    Directly under the Supplement Facts title, is your recommended serving size. Be aware that sometimes the serving size is not one unit (e.g., tablet) — it may be 2 or 3 units depending on the Directions that are provided elsewhere on the label. The subsequent nutrition information will relate to that serving size and column headers should reflect that (i.e., “Amount per serving” or “Amount per [unit]” as appropriate).

    As with the Nutrition Facts on food labels, a supplement may list information on Calories, Fats, Carbohydrates and Protein but only if they are present in the product above a certain level — what the FDA defines as “a quantitative amount by weight that exceeds the amount that can be declared as zero.”  The FDA has set definitions for “zero” (e.g., if the product contains less than 500 mg of carbohydrate, it does not need to be declared.)

    The next section deals with vitamins and minerals in the product, most for which the FDA has determined a recommended daily intake (RDI).  From those values, the “% Daily Value” (% DV) is calculated based on the quantity of the nutrient present in the product.  An example would be vitamin C which has an RDI of 90 mg for adults; if the serving contained 90 mg of that vitamin, the % DV would be 100%, if 45 mg, the % DV would be 50% and so on.  Some nutrients do not have RDIs so the % Daily Value column will have a symbol linked to a footnote “Daily Value not established.”  This is often seen on botanical products and other proprietary formulas, or even common supplements like melatonin or omega-3 fish oils.

    FDA regulations require that all ingredients are listed on the label. For the nutrients in the supplement, the “source ingredients” can be included next to the nutrient, e.g., “vitamin C (as ascorbic acid)” or they can be included in the ingredient section found directly underneath (or to the right) of the Supplement Facts.  This ingredient section can be of vital importance to those with allergies; major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans) must be declared if they are in any of the ingredients.

    Next time you are pondering your purchase, take advantage of having this nutrition information in a standard format and choose wisely.

    Susan Crane is an Independent Advisor for OTC Drugs and Labeling at EAS Consulting Group, LLC.  In this role, she advises clients on FDA and FTC regulations pertinent to labeling and promotional issues for OTC drugs, dietary supplements and cosmetics. Prior to joining EAS, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 30 years managing regulatory and compliance activities. She holds a B.S. degree in Medical Microbiology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.