Decoding Supplement Labels

Labels on supplement bottles can be confusing. Learn how to decode them to get the maximum value from your supplements.
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When’s the last time you tried to read — and understand — the label on the back of a supplement bottle? It can be as tricky as decoding the mystery that is nutrition labels on foods. Yet it’s important to review these labels to ensure there are no surprises and that you are spending your money wisely.

“As a rule of thumb, the more information that is provided on the label in terms of what the supplement does, details on proper dosages and proper matching of ingredients, the better,” says Brandon Mentore, BS, CPT, NASM-PEC, a Philadelphia-based strength and conditioning coach and sports nutritionist. “The exception to this is isolated ingredients that are sold as solitary units — they tend to have less information. But when it comes to complexes and formulas, such as preworkout supplements or vitamin B complexes, you want to find as much detailed information as possible.”

So how do you know what to look for? And maybe, more important, how do you know what to steer clear of? Mentore shares his insights:

Green Flags

  • Look for full disclosure of source information about where the product is produced and manufactured.
  • If the supplement company lists where the ingredients for the product are sourced and/or includes a brief explanation of its process, this indicates that the manufacturer places a premium on proper care in formulation.
  • Detailed instructions on dosage — such as taking the supplement on an empty stomach or with food, a specific time of day, or a cycling or titration protocol —indicates the company is aware of how the dynamics of its supplement can best be used as well as mitigate any adverse effects.
  • It’s a positive sign if a company distinguishes small details about the ingredients such as “active” ingredients versus “other" ingredients, as well as disclosure as to the purpose of “other” ingredients (which usually serve as binders, emulsifiers or chelation agents.
  • You can breathe a sigh of relief if the supplement company has certifying stamps and credentials for GMP-certified (Good Manufacturing Practices), quality control, quality assurance and a certification such as NSF for Sport (National Sanitation Foundation).

Red Flags

  • Companies that appear to invest more in the look and feel of their label versus actual information on how to use the product indicates marketing hype. This company may capitalize on impulsive or uneducated buyers.
  • Beware of companies that have inconsistencies between the product they’re selling versus what’s in the ingredients. For example, a “protein powder” designed for postworkout may contain a lot of carbohydrates but market themselves as a protein supplement — this is where lines can blur with the difference between a protein shake and meal-replacement supplement.
  • Watch for marketed benefits that are truly a moot point. For example, a fish-oil complex that is marketed as “low calorie” or “low sugar” is suspect — while this is not a lie, it’s not exactly relevant, either. They may be focused on marketing hype and not on the quality of their product.
  • Steer clear of any supplement that includes everything plus the kitchen sink. Some products have dozens of ingredients in addition to the “other” or “inactive” ingredients, and it’s rare for all the claims that are marketed for all those ingredients to be redeemed in the body, biochemically speaking. If a product is too bloated and jammed with ingredients, buyer beware.
  • Perhaps the biggest red flag of all is the absence of information when it comes to formulaic and complex-style supplements. Generic dosing instructions, lack of storage instructions, and no information about what the supplement does or where the ingredients were sourced shouldn’t instill consumer confidence.

“Consumers are much more educated these days, so vague and vacuous descriptions like ‘proprietary blend’ seem suspect because it has been used as a cover for dishonesty in the past by companies that operated unethically,” Mentore says. “That — in combination with food sensitivities, allergies and autoimmunity, which are on the rise — leaves consumers rightfully wanting full disclosure of what they are ingesting. Additionally, the clean-eating movement that is gaining in popularity means consumers are expecting more disclosure and due diligence from the supplement companies that they purchase from, just as they do with their food.”