You might have found yourself in the grocery store staring at two similar bars or drink mixes on the shelf. While they look pretty similar at a glance, the labels on the back may look completely different. Why is that? It’s because one is using a nutrition facts label while the other has what’s called a supplement facts label. While both are regulated, there are important differences between the two that athletes and parents need to be aware of to avoid the potential of unintentionally ingesting harmful substances and/or ones banned in sport.
Here, Amy Eichner, PhD, a Special Advisor on Drugs and Supplements for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, is breaking down what each label is required to tell you—and what they aren’t. We also get into some of the ethical gray areas of supplement labeling, so you know what to look out for.
There are regulations for both—but they’re not perfect
“There are regulations that dictate what has to go on either label, but they are different,” explains Eichner. “You do have to list everything that’s in either type, but the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) doesn’t evaluate supplement labels before products go to market. Companies can miss listing things or avoid listing things, and no one is going to catch it beforehand.” As such, there are many cases where a tainted supplement is to blame for a positive anti-doping test or health issue. By using a supplement facts label, a company evades a lot of scrutiny from the FDA, whereas food that carries a nutrition label is required by the FDA to only use food ingredients that are “generally regarded as safe.”
“Proprietary blends” make supplements difficult to regulate
Supplements are required to list all ingredients, but they don’t need to include amounts. “This means that a supplement facts panel can have proprietary blends, where the full amount of each ingredient isn’t listed,” says Eichner. In this case, you’ll be able to see what is in a certain supplement, like a greens powder, but often, the creators will use a proprietary blend to use a much smaller amount of pricier ingredients on the list while adding a lot more of the cheaper ingredients. So, you don’t always get a useful product!
Daily value (dv) is rarely defined for supplements
A nutrition facts panel has to list certain vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients, as well as the DV of each and what percentage of that is in each serving. “But for a lot of supplement ingredients, there isn’t a defined DV,” says Eichner. “For example, there’s no defined requirement for Horny Goat Weed or another herbal ingredient.”