Your doctor or dietitian can point you to resources that can help you make smart choices with your food. They might also recommend nutritional supplements to round out your nutritional intake. To help consumers make more informed choices, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created guidelines for labelling some of the dietary supplements your doctor or dietitian might recommend.
How are dietary supplements defined?
Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. Generally speaking, they include one or more of the following dietary ingredients:
- A vitamin
- A mineral
- An herb or other botanical
- An amino acid
- A dietary substance for use to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
- A concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract or a combination of any ingredient mentioned above
The dietary supplement labeling guidelines are extensive, but in a nutshell, all supplements generally require five statements: the name of the dietary supplement, amount of the dietary supplement, nutrition labeling, the ingredient list and the name of the manufacturer.
The Supplement Name
The first requirement — a name — is pretty self-explanatory. The supplement should go by the common name for the food, or, if applicable, the supplement should be named according to federal law or regulation. Generally speaking, the label should also say “dietary supplement,” though the word ‘‘dietary’’ may be deleted and replaced by another appropriately descriptive term like the type of ingredient (herbal supplement) or one of the main ingredients (bee pollen supplement).
Quantities and Serving Sizes
Here’s another easy one: The label should have the quantity of the contents clearly labeled. It’s important to make the distinction between a quantity and a serving size. For example, a bottle of calcium supplement could have a quantity of 100 pills but 50 servings per bottle if a serving size is defined as two pills. However, when the net quantity of contents is 100 tablets and the serving size is one tablet, the "Servings Per Container" also would be 100 tablets and would not need to be listed on the label.
As you’re looking at this information, always follow the advice of your doctor or dietitian to make sure you’re taking the right serving size. Any questions? Take the bottle to your doctor, or send them a photo for clarification.
The nutrition label for a dietary supplement is called a “Supplement Facts” panel. Manufacturers use this section to list the names and quantities of dietary supplement present in the product, as well as the serving size and servings per container. It looks similar to a nutrition facts label on the food you buy, with a few exceptions. The biggest one? Unless the FDA has established a daily value for an ingredient, the list of ingredients won’t contain daily recommended values.
For example, a calcium supplement will have a daily value listed along with each serving size’s percentage of that daily value, because the FDA has established a daily value for calcium. However, elderberry or glucosamine supplement won’t have daily values listed because the FDA doesn’t have a recommended daily value for elderberry or glucosamine. You’ll need to consult your doctor or dietitian regarding daily values.
The Ingredient List
The ingredient list will contain a list of the compounds used to make the dietary supplement. This could include substances such as binders, colors, fillers, flavors and sweeteners. If the supplement has an ingredient like calcium carbonate that appears in the supplement facts section, it doesn’t need to be listed twice. This area is also where you’ll find allergy warnings.
Different manufacturers can have vastly different ingredient lists depending on how their supplements are made, so once again, ask your doctor or dietitian if there are certain formulations they recommend or specific ingredients you should avoid.
The last requirement — the name of the manufacturer, packer or distributor — is also pretty self-explanatory. The supplement has to list where the supplement is made (for example, made in the USA or made in Canada), who’s making it and the address of the manufacturer or the manufacturer’s principal place of business.
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