The Herbal Consumer

How to Really Read a Herbal Supplement Label – Part I


Supplement facts pic - smallerHow often do you look at a label beyond identifying a product on the shelf? On an herbal supplement label there is a lot of useful information. With this information you can make better consumer decisions, shop faster and make sure you end up with what you want. The key is to know where to look.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines what must be included on an herbal supplement label and often where and how the information appears on the label. The label of a container is basically split into three parts: the principal display panel, the information panel and the rest of the label. The FDA requirements pertain to the first two parts.

The principal display panel is the part of the label used to display the product and is the part that a consumer usually sees first.

The information panel is typically located to the right of the display panel on the label or container. It includes the “supplement facts” box which is similar to the “nutrition facts” box that you find on packaged foods (remember that supplements are regulated as a special kind of food).

Each herbal supplement sold in the U.S. is required to have the following information on its label. (Feel free to grab a supplement container and follow along.)

What must be included Why it’s helpful Label panel
Product name and either the words “dietary supplement” or “herbal supplement It’s clear that it is a supplement and not a regular food or a drug as classified by the FDA PDP
Net quantity of contents in the container. This helps you know how much you’re getting and can help you compare prices across different brands PDP
Serving size and servings per container – Serving size (along with per serving information) helps you figure out how many/much you have to take to reach the amount of herb(s) you want- Servings per container helps you figure how long the contents are likely to last you IP-SF
Amount per serving information – Helps you figure out (along with serving size) how much you’d have to take to reach the amount of the ingredients, including herbs, you want- Nutritional information that can help you with your diet IP-SF
Under “% Daily Value” percentages for any ingredients that have reference daily intake (RDI) or a daily reference value (DRV) Nutritional information that can help you with your diet. IP-SF
Information on the dietary ingredients that don’t have RDIs or DRVs This pertains to herbs in a supplement – this is where you will find the name of the herb and the amount included IP-SF
Common name and/or the Latin binomial name (i.e. genus and species) of the herb(s) included – the name(s) must match how they are listed in the Herbs of Commerce, 1992 edition Helps you properly identify the herb(s) in the supplement so you can make sure you’re getting the exact herb(s) you want. IP-SF
What part of the plant was used to create the supplement Different parts of an herb can have very different effects – you want to make sure the supplement includes only the part(s) you want. IP-SF
Each herb in a proprietary blend of herbs must be listed in order based on weight Lets you know what herbs are included and can give you some idea of how much of each is included IP-SF
All the ingredients in the supplement – this is a combination of what’s in the “supplement facts” box and what’s listed under “other ingredients” If there is an ingredient that you don’t want (e.g. artificial sweetener, fillers) then you know that supplement is not for you IP
Any of the major food allergens that are included If you have allergies, you’ll know which supplements to avoid IP
Name of the manufacturer, packer or distributor and their contact information. The address and/or phone number must be located in the U.S This information helps you know how to contact the manufacturer/packer/distributor with questions about or issues with their product(s) – they are required to notify the FDA of any incidents reported to them IP
The English name of the country of origin if the product or ingredients is/are not from the United States (there are exceptions) Based on the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1304 – link) – with the herb trade being international, it provides you more information on what you’re buying Must be conspicu-ous

    ( DP = Principal display panel; IP = Information panel; SF = Supplement Facts box)

There are exceptions for some of the labeling requirements. Examples are:

  • the container is too small to accommodate all the information,
  • the products are made by small businesses that either have gross annual sales below a certain dollar amount or they create a low volume of products, or
  • the item is sold in a bulk container.

The company may be able to include the required information in a different part of the label, or not include it at all. If a company wants an exception, they have to send a request to the FDA for approval. Otherwise, they must follow the regulations.

Believe it or not, an expiration date is not required to be listed on the label. In fact, the manufacturer can only include one if it has data proving that the information is not false or misleading to the consumer.

So What’s a Consumer to Do

Learn how to use the label. Yes, some of the information on the label is trying to lure you into buying, but some of it is factual information put there as a tool for you to use in making an informed decision.

Take time to look over the label. We lead busy lives and we often want to grab and run, but it’s worth it to slow down and look. I was once looking for a single herb supplement and found one that listed the active ingredient of that herb on the display panel. That made me think it contained just that herb. When I looked at the information panel, however, I noticed that it contained other herbs that I did not want.

Get to know the herb you’re looking for including its common and Latin binomial names, what part of the plant you want (e.g. leaf, root, etc.), and what daily intake amount you’re looking for Before you go shopping. Knowing these things will help you sort through your product options faster.

An important rule of thumb to remember – more isn’t necessarily better. If you’re comparing brands and one has a higher amount of an herb, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a better choice. Know what you’re looking for before you go shopping.

One last point – while this information is supposed to be on the label, the FDA doesn’t approve supplements or their labeling before they are put on the market. There have been cases of adulteration where pharmaceuticals were included in supplements that weren’t listed on the label. The FDA stepped in but not until some consumers were harmed. Check into the companies whose products you’re interested in using, and be wary of promises that sounds too good to be true.

In the next article we’ll be looking at the different kinds of claims that can and cannot be included on a supplement label. In the meantime, check out the consumer tools below.

Links to Learn More

Common and Latin binomial names for herbs. The list is in alpha order. Common names are in bold small caps and Latin binomial names are in italics – American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) -– Herbs of Commerce, 1992 Edition

Information on daily value, reference daily intake (RDI) and daily reference value (DRV) terms – FDA website – Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide – Appendix F: Calculate the Percent Daily Value for the Appropriate Nutrients

Easy to read Q&A on supplement labeling – FDA website – Guidance for Industry – A Dietary Supplement Labeling Guide

Detailed regulation language – FDA website – Specific Nutrition Labeling Requirements and Guidelines – 21 CFR 101.36

Next article will be posted August 4, 2015 – How to Really Read an Herbal Supplement Label – Part II