Learn how to read and understand supplement labels to make more informed purchase decisions
As consumer awareness around added sugar, artificial ingredients and the calorie content of the foods we eat in modern society has grown many people have become proficient food label readers.
However, how many of us consider supplements as food, and how many of us even bother to read the labels on the tubs and bottles of whey, mass builders, pre-workouts and fat burners we buy in our quest for optimal health and the ultimate physique?
While the debate about whether supplements should be classified as food or as medicine rages on, it pays to understand what the labels on these products signify and to factor these data into your daily diet.
Food or medicine?
As Mario van Biljon, co-founder of local supplement brands SSN and Supashape, explains, depending on the types and/or levels of the ingredients different laws and rules apply. “For most ‘foodstuffs’, labelling legislation is governed by the Department of Health. However, the inclusion of certain ingredients or ingredients above certain specified levels can result in the product being classified as a ‘listable’ or ‘registerable’ medicine.” Medicines labelling is governed by the Medicines Control Council (MCC).
“The most important information that you should see and refer to on properly labelled nutritional supplements on the local market should include the ingredient statement, the nutritional table, and the vitamin, mineral and amino acid profile per serving,” continues Van Biljon.
Branding and packaging
Mark Wolf, the founder of supplement manufacturer 32Gi, adds that a product label, if done according to proper legislation, will empower consumers who have the right knowledge to make more informed buying decisions to better meet their performance-based nutrition needs.
“Firstly, it is important to understand that product packaging is there to attract potential customers and drive sales. It is therefore very easy for consumers to make a purchase decision based on the look, feel and the claims made on the front of a product. Unfortunately, most buyers ignore the most crucial part of the product packaging which is the content in the nutritional table on the back of the product. And it’s at the back for a reason – it’s granular information that doesn’t make a product look attractive and may seem confusing and overwhelming for uninformed consumers.”
According to Wolf there is local legislation governing claims made on packaging but it is not proactively enforced to any significant degree. “There are however locally manufactured products that currently meet European standards where products are governed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In these cases the labelling needs to adhere to the strictest of standards as product naming conventions are not allowed to also be claims. Any claims need to be scientifically and medically proven and authorised as an approved claim by the EFSA. Unfortunately in South Africa we have not yet reached that level of policing and this is where consumers can be led into buying supplements based on unfounded or even dubious claims.”
When consumers are able to look past the design elements, marketing speak and product claims, and are able to read and understand the nutritional label, Wolf suggests that they then have the power to make informed decisions. “As with any contract, always look at the fine print. Turn that product around and interrogate the ingredient list because that is what you are actually buying.”
Know your ingredients
Van Biljon explains that the ingredient statement is simply a list of all the constituents in a particular formula. “You can consider it as the ‘recipe’ for the formulation, without listing the level of each ingredient. The most important thing to remember here is that according to current labelling legislation, ingredients in the product must be listed in order of descending concentration – the highest concentration in the formulation will be listed first and the ingredient with the lowest concentration listed last.”
Wolf elaborates that this is extremely useful information because a simple glance at the first two or three ingredients listed will let you know what the product is primarily composed of. “Companies do not have to specify exact amounts when listing ingredients on the label to protect intellectual property rights. However, by analysing the ingredient list you get a pretty good idea of what is included.”
You may also find ingredients that are represented by proprietary names, but Wolf says this is generally more prevalent in the United States. “Manufacturers may formulate a specific compound, like a specific combination of amino acids, and then register its name with the authorities. This name is then added to the ingredient list. Generally, product labels will state the breakdown of these ingredients but sometimes there is just a trademark name and more in-depth analysis needs to be done to verify the content of it. In general, it is best to avoid something if you don’t understand all the ingredients in it.”
Another point of contention is ingredients that are listed as numbers with an ‘E’ prefix before them. “Consumers often think these ingredients are hazardous, however this couldn’t be further from the truth. The E-number system is a classification system used to identify food additives, many of which aren’t necessarily bad for you. Some can be but, as an example, beetroot natural colour extract will he listed as E162 and carrot extract as E160a. However, some colours such as Quinolone yellow, denoted by the number E104, has been deemed to be hazardous. Manufacturers in the EU that use it in their formulations have therefore been requested to state on product labels that this product can have an effect on concentration in children. However, in South Africa it is not policed so consumers buy these products without knowing exactly what the contents of the products are. Colouring and flavouring should always be taken into consideration when purchasing a product and the ingredients will definitely show you exactly what has been included. It is best to go for natural colours and flavours whenever possible.”