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The Facts About Nutrition and Supplement Labels: What’s the Difference?

Don’t know where to start when reading nutrition and supplement labels? Our NSF experts offer this quick tutorial.

You’re into your health. You’re eating a balanced diet and exercising. But navigating the grocery store or pharmacy aisles to help ensure that you and your family get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck is not easy.

Nutrition facts panels and dietary supplement information are mandatory on most food and supplement products. Still, you may ask yourself, what does it all mean? What should I be looking for? What’s the difference between nutrition labels on food and dietary supplement labels? They both look so similar.

I turned to our NSF experts for some key insights into comparing the two. As we take a closer look, we see that they are in fact distinctly different.

Nutrition Labels

Most packaged foods contain a nutrition label with all the information about the product to help you make informed choices.

  • Nutrient levels. Nutrient content claims describe the level of a nutrient in the product, using the words free, high, low, more, reduced or lite.
  • Getting the skinny. Total fat, saturated fat and trans-fat are all listed as well.
  • Vitamin counts. Labels must also include some vitamins and minerals. This has recently changed. Previously, labels had to declare vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron; this has shifted to vitamin D, potassium, calcium and iron. Vitamins A and C are now voluntary.
  • Sweet talking. Total sugars, added sugars, protein and carbohydrates must be listed.
  • Heart health. Cholesterol and sodium counts should be included too.
  • Government approved. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of food ingredients tested and determined to be “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS, for short). Only products that use GRAS ingredients or FDA-approved food additives can have nutrition facts labels. For example, most energy drinks on the market are labeled dietary supplements because they contain ingredients not considered GRAS.

Supplement Labels

  • Plus one. Supplement labels must include the same nutrients as nutrition facts labels and, in addition, must declare if they are added to the product for supplementation or if a claim is made about them. Required nutrients must be listed if found in the supplement in an amount greater than zero; mg (milligram) and mcg (microgram) are the standard units of measurement for some vitamins, such as vitamin C.
  • Daily value. Dietary supplements may use percentage levels to refer to ingredients without daily value (DV), such as “40% omega-3 fatty acids,” which is not allowed for food products.
  • Going global. The unit mcg RAE (retinol activity equivalents) is an international unit of measurement used for vitamin A. The quantity of the biologically active substance produces a particular biological effect and varies based on the nutrient form. Vitamin A forms have different bioactivities. One mcg RAE is equivalent to 1 mcg retinol, 2 mcg supplemental beta-carotene, 12 mcg dietary beta-carotene, etc. Carotenoids are converted by the body into retinol.
  • Know your sources. Dietary supplement facts allow the source of the dietary ingredient to be listed alongside it, while nutrition facts do not permit this. For instance, a dietary supplement panel may list collagen from grass-fed cows as an ingredient, while a food label may only indicate “collagen.”
  • Planting evidence. With dietary supplement facts, the specific part of a plant must be listed to show how the dietary source was derived, whereas this info isn’t allowed for nutrition facts.
  • Beware of health claims. Dietary supplements are not permitted to claim that they can treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition, except for specific cases in which the FDA has authorized a limited claim based on “significant scientific agreement.” For example, suppose the vitamin contains a high amount of calcium. In that case, the label may declare, “Adequate calcium throughout life can lower the risk of osteoporosis.”
  • Other claims. Claims may describe the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient in the structure or function of the human body, such as “calcium builds strong bones” or “antioxidants maintain cell integrity,” only if backed by scientific evidence and accompanied by a mandatory disclaimer stating that the claim has not been reviewed by the FDA.

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