In this multi-part, opinionated, skeptic’s guide to the world of nootropics and supplements at large, I attempt to offer some context and perspective on a broad, controversial topic. This is part 5: How to Read a Supplement Label. If you didn’t read parts 1–2–3–4, consider doing that before reading on.
Necessarily, in the interest of expedience, some of this will be a gloss. Hence the ‘dummies’ bit in the title. I don’t think you’re a dummy — it’s a figure of speech. Please do read on, regardless of your self-assessed intelligence.
Other posts in this series:
How to Read a Supplement Label
OK — now that we’ve covered how to evaluate the evidence for ingredients for ourselves, we’re ready to start looking at some actual products. This is the the most day-to-day, real-life, practical post in the series so far.
Labeling is one of the areas of tightest regulation in the supplements industry, and for good reason — it’s often the only place customers look to get crucial information about a product before they buy it and swallow it.
If you’ve read the previous parts in this series, you’ll know that low-info behavior is not something I condone, but I understand it to be a Thing and thus accept it with the same beatific, zen attitude I bring to everything in life. I kid I kid—it makes me crazy.
Please, if these articles bring you anything, don’t be one of these people that reads the label and nothing else, but with that said, — please do read the label, and do so with the following tips in mind.
1. Proprietary Blends are the Opposite of Transparent Labeling
When you see a ‘proprietary blend’ on a label, ask yourself why the manufacturer might have chosen to lump multiple ingredients together.
Does it make it easier for you, the consumer, to tell what you’re buying and what you’re putting into your body?
Or does it make it easier for the manufacturer to obscure how much of an expensive ingredient they’ve included by rolling it into the same, arbitrary, lump-quantity line as something inexpensive like ‘oat straw’?
Does it hew to the spirit of the supplement facts panel by arming you with the information you need to make an informed decision? Or does it exploit a loophole in order to comply with the letter of the law while providing the customer as little information as possible?
What does this practice tell you about how the manufacturer of this product sees you, their customer?
2. Source Doesn’t Matter for Molecular Ingredients
Sorry to the homeopathic believers out there, but if the ingredient in question is a molecule, it does not matter where that molecule came from.
And I know we just got started, but I can’t just take a passing shot at homeopathy — I’m sorry folks, but do you know what Oscillococcinum is? You may have seen this product in pharmacies—it’s marketed as a flu treatment. Know what it is? It’s a dilution of one part duck liver to 10⁴⁰⁰ parts water.
You know what 10⁴⁰⁰ is? It’s 10 with 400 zeros after it. That’s a HUGE f*^king number. A googol is 10¹⁰⁰, which is on the high end of estimates of the number of atoms in the universe. That means in order to get any duck liver at all from this product, you’d need to take something like 4 doses for every atom in the universe.
Does duck liver treat the flu? I will not say no because the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence—but I will say that there is no evidence that duck liver treats the flu, and even further, I would imagine that if it did, you would need to take some for it to work.
Unfortunately, even if you don’t believe in homeopathy, you may unconsciously be falling for a version of the same magical thinking, presented in a more insidious way. It plays to the ‘natural is better than synthetic’ argument — which is oversimplified here and something I’ll address in more detail in a later post in this series.
To give you a concrete example of this in practice— these days a trend in supplements, nootropics especially, and energy drinks (often a kind of supplement, in my opinion) is to include caffeine from a named source, likely guarana seeds or yerba mate. There are possibly some antioxidant benefits from catechins in guarana or yerba mate, but if the caffeine has been isolated from the plant source, it does not matter where it came from, because it is just caffeine, the molecule:
That is pure marketing, slightly deceptive, and it should put you on guard a bit as to the marketer’s intentions.
3. Botanical Species Matters
As I’ll mention again in the next section, it’s not enough to know only the genus of a botanical ingredient — you need to know the species as well, but unfortunately, the law stipulates that some herbs be listed in a way that makes it difficult to know exactly what you’re getting without some extra research.
As an example, most of the research available on the benefits of Rhodiola was conducted with extracts of Rhodiola rosea, but some supplements are instead made with Rhodiola crenulata and labeled in a way that might mislead a buyer into thinking they were getting rosea. Crenulata won’t kill you, but it lacks entirely an entire category of actives (called rosavins) that make rosea desirable as a nootropic.
If the species name is not available from the label, assume you don’t know what you’re getting and proceed to do more digging with the manufacturer or marketer— ideally finding their Certificates of Analysis (CoA — more on this in a later post, on testing) which verify the identity of the raw material used in the supplement you’re considering.
4. Herbs of Commerce Names May Seem Unfamiliar
According to the FDA’s final rule issued to implement the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), some of which we discussed in pt 2 of this series, regulations require the names of botanicals used in supplements to be consistent with the names standardized in the American Herbal Products Association’s reference Herbs of Commerce [PDF].
Unfortunately, the names used in Herbs of Commerce are not necessarily consistent with either the binomial genus and species names or the common names you might be familiar with, and that can make it hard to look at a SFP (Supplement Facts Panel) and know what you’re getting.
As an example, when we went to put together the SFP for Plato, a wonderful nootropic I endorse wholeheartedly because it’s mine and I made it, my compliance consultant (yes I have one of those, and yes, he’s eye-wateringly expensive) told me the rule said I couldn’t list Panax ginseng under that name. I had to list it as ‘Asian ginseng’. Who calls it that? It sounds vaguely racist. (There’s actually an older example on the FDA’s site calling it ‘Oriental gingseng’, which is even more problematic.)
Let’s take a look at Plato’s SFP:
We’re looking at three herbal ingredients here, known most often by their Latin or ‘binomial’ names Bacopa monnieri, Rhodiola rosea, and Panax ginseng. But on my SFP, they’re listed as ‘Bacopa’, ‘Rhodiola’, and ‘Asian ginseng’.
As discussed above — there are other Rhodiolas in the genus (60–90 by some counts), and other Bacopas, and ‘Asian ginseng’ is pretty nonspecific as well. IMO, the FDA rule is here enhancing consistency while simultaneously contributing to ambiguity for the end consumer.
As a consumer of nootropics myself, I wanted to make sure you could look at my label and be sure right there of what you’re getting, so we add the binomial names, seen here in italics, to the SFP, to clarify. Others often don’t choose to do that (it does look cluttered, after all), and it may not be for nefarious reasons, but if there is ambiguity, don’t assume you know what you’re getting. Many seemingly high-quality products use under-researched ingredients.
5. Plant Parts Matter
When we’re dealing with herbs, just like with cooking and eating them, it matters what part of the plant we use. Are you a big fan of basil root? How often do you eat ginger leaves?
The same applies to herbs used for their medicinal properties — in some cases, the useful part of the herb is the root, sometimes the leaf, sometimes all above-ground parts (aerial parts), and sometimes the whole plant.
According to FDA rule, products are required to list the plant part used on the SFP. If it’s missing, that should be a sign that perhaps the manufacturer is not a big adherent to the rules.
Often, though, the plant part will be listed, and, confusingly, the part of the plant included will either be the wrong part of the plant or, as is often the case, despite that only one part is known to be effective, they’ll use the whole plant.
Why? Perhaps because they don’t know better, or perhaps because it was cheaper and they’re counting on you being uninformed. As with food, it’s up to you to know what you’re looking for, even if somebody is selling the wrong part. Not meant as a ‘whataboutism’, but even foods are not immune to these sorts of shenanigans — did you think there were truffles in your truffle oil?
6. Quantity is Only Part the Story
The numbers you see most often on a Supplement Facts Panel — the right column— are the quantitative amounts by weight, often expressed in milligrams. While this is enough information for molecular ingredients (see above), whose potency can be assumed to be 100%, for botanical ingredients it’s only a small portion of the information you need in order to know what you’re getting.
As discussed in pt 4 of this series, What’s the Difference Between a Supplement and a Drug?, with many herbal ingredients we don’t know precisely the mechanism of action that leads to the results we see in clinical studies. We’re often not even sure which part of an herb is responsible for the results we want, and in some cases research suggests it is likely to be multiple components, and sometimes at specific ratios.
As you know from personal experience, plants express great variety within a single species—from plant to plant even under the same conditions in the same spot, one might thrive while another struggles. This variation is even more pronounced varietal to varietal, season to season, location to location, and year to year. It’s one of the joys of (non-industrial) produce—some years the tomatoes here are just exceptionally good—but it’s undesirable when you are using plants for medicine.
Unlike with food, we want extreme consistency in the potency and relative quantities of the active components of the plants we use for supplements and nootropics, and while it’s possible that raw ingredient no-name herbal ingredients are in fact consistently potent, there’s no way for you, the consumer, to know in a product that simply uses the raw ingredient. What do we do about that?
7. Standardized Extracts Offer Consistency and Transparency
The industry’s solution to the consistency problem is standardized extracts. Standardized extracts are herbal ingredients that are processed to tight controls on potency, consistency, and purity.
When the ingredient is standardized, you should be able to do the simple weight * potency math (expressed as a percentage of weight) to understand how much of the active ingredient you’re getting in a given dose.
With that said, often manufacturers will include standardized extracts in their products but choose not to indicate the potency of the extract on the SFP, and sometimes nowhere on the label at all. This is because including that information puts them on the hook — with a potency indicated on the bottle, the product must meet that potency at any time it’s sold and tested, even 3 years later, which some makers view as unnecessary exposure.
As a consumer, you need more knowledge to use this information — you need to know the constituent to look for — ingredient-specific compounds like ‘salidroside’, ‘bacopa glycosides’, etc.— and how much you’re trying to get from a dose in order to match the effect found in the clinical research. We discussed how to establish this for yourself in a previous post in the series.
8. *Branded* Standardized Extracts Can Provide Additional Information
Without going too deeply into the production methods of botanical ingredients, suffice it to say not all standardized extracts are created equal. There are too many reasons to cover in the scope of this article, but as a shorthand, there is an analogy to generic and branded consumer packaged goods.
Is Colgate toothpaste necessarily better than a generic brand—more likely to be free of contaminants, more likely to contain exactly what it says on the label and nothing else? Not necessarily, but at least with the name brand, you know where to go to do your homework — who to Google for bad news, whose name to search FDA for warning letters, etc.
With generic ingredients, you’d be hard-pressed to find any more information on the ingredient than the information you’re given by the company marketing the end product, and if they don’t elect to provide more information about its production, makeup, testing, etc., you’re taking it on faith.
While the analogy isn’t perfect, even generic drugs aren’t immune to the type of issues consumers run into when they can’t go back to the source and kick tires. Having an ingredient with a name attached to it — a branded ingredient—gives us infinitely more to go on when probing the validity of what the label claims.
Additionally, as discussed in a previous post, it is often the manufacturers of branded extracts paying for the research available on a given ingredient— using their branded extract, naturally— which means the evidentiary basis we’re using for deciding if an ingredient is safe and effective can be directly applied to the specific branded extract used in the study with much greater confidence than a with a generic product that’s only made from a plant of the same species.
Does this mean generics are inferior? Or that whole plants are ineffective? Not necessarily, but while I’m more than happy to take the risk on an unknown tomato, when it comes to concentrated botanical extracts going into my body, I’m a bit of a control freak, and I hope this line of argumentation is bringing you around to that way of thinking as well.
9. Vitamins and Minerals are a Cheap Way to Pad a Label
With a few notable exceptions, like vitamin D for example, most healthy people are not deficient in vitamins or minerals, and at best, consuming an excess of them results in ‘expensive pee’. In some cases, over-supplemented nutrients can compete for uptake of other important nutrients — common examples being magnesium competing with calcium and zinc with copper.
Setting the issues of necessity and competing uptake aside, it’s very common to see supplement ‘stacks’ — products containing multiple related ingredients— sporting a nice list of vitamins alongside their core ingredients. It makes sense, right? The average consumer will, in part, compare labels on how many ingredients they have, and more probably means better, or at least better value, and who doesn’t need vitamins?
Of course, if you were with me for the preceding parts of this series, you probably view more ingredients as more research to be done by you, and more likelihood that the nature of an ingredient is dubious enough that the whole ‘stack’ is dubious by extension.
Vitamins aren’t likely to hurt you, really, but it’s wise to be skeptical of the reasons a manufacturer might load up a label with vitamins you’re likely to be getting plenty of in your diet.
10. ‘Other Ingredients’ are a Mixed Bag
Just below the ingredients list in a supplement SFP is a list of ‘other ingredients’ — these are parts of the formula or capsule that aren’t included for their effects on your health. They serve a number of utilitarian purposes, and they often have hard-to-pronounce names, but they’re unlikely to be bad for you in any way.
In the manufacturing process, high-speed filling machines are used to mix and encapsulate all kinds of ingredients, each of which may have a propensity to stick, clump, become airborne, or jam the equipment. Herbal ingredients are notorious for this.
Depending on how much material is included in a given supplement’s formula, it’s not uncommon for a dose to be too small to completely fill one or two capsules. When this happens, it becomes necessary to pad out the volume of each cap with inert fillers so the capsule itself doesn’t get crushed or broken in the bottle.
The ingredients used to do these excipient and filling jobs are not ‘active’ ingredients, and so they go on the ‘other ingredients’ part of the label. Some common examples include magnesium stearate, stearic acid, rice powder, carrageenan, silicon dioxide, stearic acid, potassium sorbate, etc.
These ‘other ingredients’ fill a number of roles — as mentioned above, they serve as fillers and flow agents, and in some cases are used as preservatives and thickeners. These are the supplement equivalents of stuff you might recognize from foods — things like guar gum, carrageenan (again), xanthan gum, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, etc. show up all over the place in common foods like ice cream, condiments, cereals, candy, etc.
This part of the supplement label is where you’ll also see the material the capsule is made of — often gelatin (pig hooves)or hypromellose / hydoxypropyl methylcellulose (wood gelatin) in veggie caps.
Manufacturers have done their best to cut down on the use of these sorts of ingredients as part of a trend towards ‘clean labeling’. With that said, generally there is quite a lot more fear, uncertainty, and doubt out there about ingredients in this category than is merited by the data, and the FDA has been looking at these ingredients closely for decades.
It seems that something about the ancillary role these ingredients play contributes to the scrutiny they get while some truly big-picture issues are ignored. I’m not anti-scrutiny by any means but I’m always a bit surprised when the concern is so unevenly distributed.
Incidentally, many of the controversies about these ingredients have the same anecdotal complaint profile as the totally unfounded, undeserved, and, again, vaguely racist prejudice against our delicious friend MSG — in fact, many of the symptoms mentioned in complaints— symptoms like headache, nausea, constipation, etc., are the same people experience when taking placebo. It’s called the nocebo effect, or expectation effect, and it’s part of the reason we conduct blind studies instead of accepting self-reported anecdotes as scientific data.
To sum this one up, it’s hard to speak broadly about ‘other ingredients’ because that part of the label catches so many different functional categories but, generally speaking, the presence of excipients and fillers is not in itself a cause for concern, and few if any supplement manufacturers are deviating from the GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) ingredients everyone else is using in that department.
11. Not all Warnings Should be Scary
You’ve probably seen the copy a million times before and thought nothing of it, but what’s with this ubiquitous disclaimer?
If you’ve been following the series, particularly the last section, ‘What’s the Difference Between a Supplement and a Drug?’, you know already that supplements, unlike drugs, cannot be marketed as treatment, cure, or prevention for disease.
With that said, supplements (and foods) can still make ‘structure/function’ claims — and in the case of supplements, these are required to be substantiated with evidence and registered with the FDA, where they are checked to confirm that they are not, in fact, claiming to ‘diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease’.
If the marketers elect to make no claims in the packaging or marketing of the product, they don’t need to run the above disclaimer, but in all other circumstances, it must accompany all claims. It’s there to remind you that, while the FDA has oversight over the supplements industry, they haven’t dug into this particular product’s claims. That’s it. I’d say it’s regulatory fine print, but it’s required to be in bold and offset by a hairline box.
12. You Do Not Need to Supplement Caffeine
This one is a ‘duh’ bonus point, but the makers of nootropics that include caffeine are doing so for what I believe to be cynical reasons. When you take caffeine, it perks you up. Every time you take a supplement with caffeine in it, you perk up, and of course you do — you’re taking a stimulant.
But caffeine is not a nootropic by the strict definition (see part one of this series for that definition), and, perhaps more importantly, you know where to get it, right? I mean, tea is literally the most popular non-water beverage in the world, and in addition to containing caffeine, it contains caffeine’s wonder-buddy L-theanine and loads of catechins and other stuff that appears to be very good for you for reasons we have yet to peg down precisely.
Now, caffeine has some interesting properties for athletic performance, and in the context of a pre-workout supplement … well, maybe. But when you see caffeine on a nootropic label — again, ask yourself why the makers have included that in there … is it to save you the time and trouble of locating caffeine in today’s busy coffee-scarce world? Or is it because it gives you an energy pop when you take the pill and thus makes you think it’s ‘doing something’?
This concludes part 5 of Nootropics for Dummies.
Follow me to be notified when I post Part 6: Armchair Nootropics Quality Assurance, (very shortly, I should expect), where we’ll go beyond the label to evaluate the sourcing, testing, and QC of a product from the information available.
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Give Me an Example / Just Tell Me What to Take / The Shortcut
Yes — this is a lot of info. It’s not too much info — there’s no such thing— but I can appreciate it may feel like there’s a lot to take in, and I’m flattered you want my opinion.
I went through 6 months of research on nootropic ingredients alone before I figured out something that works for me, and, nearly 3 years later, it’s now available for anybody, whether or not they want to read the rest of this series. I mentioned it above — it’s called Plato, it’s exactly what I’ve been taking for 2.5 years, and you can hit that link to get it. Thanks for reading!