You’re in the supplements aisle of your local natural foods store, and you’re shopping for a specific nutrient. When you find it, chances are you’ll encounter more than a few choices. So which supplement should you buy? Knowing what to look for on the label can help you make a quick, confusion-free decision.
Check the Facts
The Supplement Facts panel on the back of every supplement bottle or box looks a lot like the Nutrition Facts panel you see on the back of packaged food items. That’s because the FDA, which regulates the food industry, technically considers supplements to be food.
Reading the Supplement Facts panel—and understanding it—can feel like a task that you’d rather skip. Don’t. The Supplement Facts panel contains valuable information about what you’re actually buying, and how much. Here’s a quick overview of the facts you’ll want to check before you buy.
1. Serving size—This is the number of soft gels, gummies, tablets, or teaspoons the manufacturer recommends you take to reach the nutrients levels stated on the label. Unless otherwise noted, the serving size is for adults and children ages 4 and up.
Back when I was shopping for prenatal vitamins, I made the mistake of buying a supplement that had a serving size of four capsules—more than I wanted to take daily. The lesson? Check this first to make sure you’re okay with the serving size.
2. Servings per container—This is how much of a daily supply you’re actually buying. If you’re comparing prices, make sure you’re comparing supplements with the same number of servings per container to get an accurate read on how much each supplement costs. Sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached for a less expensive brand only to find out that it contains fewer servings per container than another brand with a higher price. (Note: The FDA does not require manufacturers to include Servings per Container on the supplement facts panel, so you won’t always find this information on every supplement you buy.)
3. Amount per serving—Here is where you’ll want to check the actual nutrient levels a particular supplement contains. If you’re shopping for a children’s multivitamin, for example, you’ll want to compare nutrient levels for each brand you’re considering to get the most value for your purchase.
Nutrient levels are most commonly measured in units of weight: grams (g), milligrams (mg), and micrograms (mcg). Fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, and E have traditionally been measured in international units (IU), which is a measurement of biologically active substances that produce a particular effect. However, the FDA recently mandated that supplement manufacturers phase out the IU measurements and use milligrams (mg) and micrograms (mcg) instead. This change, which goes into effect beginning this year, should cut down on some of the confusion around these nutrient levels, and make label reading a little easier for us consumers.
4. % Daily value—These percentages reflect how much a particular nutrient contributes to your daily nutritional needs, based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. The percentages, established by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, are called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). These DRIs are updated periodically based on scientific studies, and were most recently updated in 2015. An asterisk or dagger in place of a percentage means that no daily value has been assigned for that particular nutrient.
If you’re already taking other supplements daily, you’ll want to read these values carefully to make sure you’re not getting too much of a good thing for some nutrients, or not enough of others. In other words, some math here might be required. When you go shopping for supplements to add to your daily routine, bring along a list of what you already take so you have this information at the ready.
5. Ingredients—Ingredients beyond those nutrients profiled in the supplement facts panel are listed at the bottom, in descending order by weight. Here you’ll find ingredients used to make the capsules that contain the nutrients, as well as the ingredients used to preserve your supplement’s contents. It’s an important list to read, especially if you know you have allergies or food intolerances.
6. Expiration date & lot number—While not required by FDA, reputable manufacturers will include this information on the label so that you know exactly when your supplement was made, down to the specific manufacturing lot or batch. This information is particularly useful if you’re concerned about the quality and freshness of the ingredients used to create your supplement.
So, back to the supplement aisle at your natural foods store: How do you choose the supplement that’s right for you?
Start with what you DO want. Look for the nutrient levels in the amount per serving. If you’re buying fish oil, for example, you’ll want to look closely at the levels of omega-3s EPA and DHA in each serving. Amounts can vary greatly, depending on whether you’re buying a concentrated or non-concentrated fish oil, or the size of the soft gel. Think about your health goals and what level of nutrient support is best for you.
Next, look for what you DON’T want. Read the ingredients list at the bottom of the supplement facts panel, paying close attention to common allergens such as milk, soy, eggs, or gluten. You may also want to look for mentions of any sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.
Then, take a look at serving size (usually 1–2), and also the size of the actual soft gel or capsule if swallowing larger-size capsules is an issue for you. Make a note of taste and anything else that might affect how easy it is for you to take your supplements regularly.
Don’t forget to check the expiration date to be sure what you’re buying has plenty of shelf life. And finally, make sure you’re buying from a reputable brand. One that makes information readily available to you online about where the ingredients in its supplements come from, and how fresh and free of contaminants those ingredients are. (Nordic Naturals offers a free certificate of analysis, which details the results of third-party testing for every product sold.)
After all, you’re buying supplements to support your health. Why wouldn’t you want to know exactly what you’re putting in your body?
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