Reading Supplement Labels

Optimizing one’s health frequently involves more than simply changing diet plans or getting exercise. Supplements and medications are a common inclusion for health plans. Unfortunately, sifting through all the information found on the back of these products and prescriptions can be daunting and difficult. Part of the reason it is so challenging is because manufacturers must include a substantial amount of information in a small area. This situation has necessitated the use of abbreviations, shorthand, and symbols to convey necessary information. Although these communication tactics save space, it can be difficult for people who are not familiar with them to decipher supplement labels. Familiarizing oneself with common abbreviations, important sections, and critical information located on supplement packages can help optimize one’s treatment and supplementation practices.

Common Abbreviations

There are many two or three letter abbreviations that can be found on supplement packaging. Without knowing the meaning of these condensed words, they are of little use. The following abbreviations are frequently used to convey important information regarding the product and its uses.

I.U. – International Unit

There are multiple units of measure used for different types of nutrients. The international unit is the standard used for fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. International units will frequently be found on multivitamins or supplements containing fat-soluble substances.

MG – Milligrams

Grams are a frequently used unit of measurement. When dealing with smaller amounts it is important to convert to a smaller unit. Milligrams or mg denotes how many one-thousandths of a gram of a substance is contained in a product.

MCG – Micrograms

Micrograms is an even smaller unit and is abbreviated by mcg. This measurement is frequently found on medication labels and denotes one millionth of a gram.

EXP – Expiration

Just like food, many medications have an expiration date. The expiration date on a supplement denotes when the contents have degraded to a point that the daily value on the label no longer portrays the nutrient value of the ingredients. Expired supplements are rarely harmful but they will more likely provide reduced nutritional value. It is best to replace expired supplements and medications with new ones. To keep supplements fresh as long as possible it is best to store them in a cool dry place inside their original containers.

Daily Value

The daily value is closely tied to serving size and is sometimes seen as “% Daily Value”, “Daily Value” or “DV.” The percentage listed in the daily value section correlates to how much of a given substance is acquired in one serving of the product. If a product contains a vitamin C with a daily value of 50%, one serving of the product will provide 50% of the recommended amount of vitamin C for the day. Daily value percentages found next to a given nutrient also signifies its presence in the product. A daily value below 5% is considered a low representation and values over 20% are considered high.

If one finds double asterisks ** where the daily value is normally located, it means that the FDA has not set a daily value for the nutrient. This does not necessarily mean a nutrient should be avoided but simply that the FDA has not decided on a recommended dosage or the item is not included in their recommended diet. The values the FDA sets for nutrients are all based on a 2,000 calories diet. Depending on a variety of factors such as age, activity level, weight, and physical health, one’s caloric needs will differ meaning that nutritional percentages will also depend on the individual.

Serving Size

Serving size is perhaps the most important area on a supplement label because it indicates how many pieces, units, or amounts are associated with the daily value. All the information following this portion of the label is based off the serving size. If one multiplies the number of servings, they equally multiply the number of nutrients they are acquiring. For example, if the serving size of a tablet is one and it contains 1000 milligrams of vitamin C, if a person takes a single pill they will acquire 1000 milligrams of vitamin C. If one were to take two tablets of this product, they would get 2000 milligrams of vitamin C. This multiplicative property is true for all ingredients found in a given supplement.

It is important to read the serving size and not assume that it is always one. Many medications and supplements have a serving size of two or even three gel capsules, tablets, or pills. If one under consumes the serving size they are effectively dividing the nutrient value they are getting from the product.

Key Ingredients and Additional Ingredients

The key ingredients listed on the label are the primary elements contained in the supplement. In some cases, specific ingredients will be bolded with a subsequent list containing ingredients found in the bolded item. For example, if an ingredient is a blend of multiple substances, the ingredients that make up the whole would be listed below the bolded item.

Additional ingredients may be listed below the key ingredients section. This area contains the elements that do not contribute to the nutritional value of a supplement. These items include items such as gel capsules, fillers, binders, or casings. This section also lists possible allergens and cross-contaminants that may be present in the product.

Well Read and Well Informed

Deciphering the complex combination of abbreviations, symbols, and numbers located on supplement labels may seem challenging. The information provided in this article should allow one to confidently read nearly any prescription, medication, or supplement and have a greater understanding of its contents and uses. By thoroughly reading the information given on one’s medications they become better informed and better equipped regarding their personal health and wellness.

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