How do supplement brands get away with not declaring sugar or fat on their label?

Consumers often question why some nutrient facts panels on supplement labels declare the amount of a nutrient, for example sugar or fat, while others leave them off completely. What are brands hiding by not disclosing these values and how do they get away with it? I have a reputation for exposing shady tactics used in the supplement industry, but in this case there is no scam, it’s government regulations that makes it look like there is.

I receive many questions about NutraBio products in which one or more of the macros are not listed within the Supplement Facts panel on the label. Fat, carbohydrate, protein, added sugar, cholesterol, fiber and other nutrient values are important to health conscious supplement buyers and they expect to see them disclosed on the label, but often they are missing. For example, NutraBio Plant Protein does not list “Sugar” on the Supplement Facts panel. Customers are often confused by this and question whether there is any sugar in the product, and if not, why it isn’t listed on the label as zero. Why do we make it so confusing?

The answer itself is a bit confusing because the regulations are applied differently based on the type of label and category of product. Along your label reading journey, you might have noticed that the header on the nutrient facts panel varies between “Supplement Facts” and “Nutrition Facts” and understanding the difference is the first step to unravelling the confusion. These two terms are not used indiscriminately; there are strict regulations that guide their specific use. As a matter of fact, there are Federal regulations that guide every aspect of the nutrient facts panel including rounding of values, the order nutrients are listed, daily values, and even the thickness of the lines and size of the fonts.

Eliminating the confusion behind Supplement Facts panels and Nutrition Facts panels

DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, clearly defines what a dietary supplement is: a product taken orally that is intended to supplement the diet and includes only dietary ingredients. DSHEA further defines dietary ingredients as vitamins, minerals, botanicals or herbs, amino acids or constituents thereof or other ingredients intended to supplement the diet, while specifically excluding meal replacements. If a product fits into that category, it’s a dietary supplement, which requires a Supplement Facts panel on the label. If it’s a general food outside the dietary supplement definition, a Nutrition Facts panel is required.

On a Supplement Facts panel, the regulation does not allow us to claim zero values. So if the product has no sugar in the claimed serving size, you are not allowed to include the word "sugar" on the panel with a zero value next to it; you must leave it completely off. If you see protein, fat, cholesterol, fiber, sugar, etc., missing from the Supplement Facts panel, it is simply because there are none of those macros in the supplement. In some cases, the amount of a nutrient is so negligible that regulations require it to be rounded to zero, so it’s not allowed to be claimed on the label.

However, the rules change for a Nutrition Facts panel. On a Nutrition Facts panel, it’s the opposite: Zeros are included for the macros that have zero values. For example, if sugar is at a zero level, the Nutrition Facts panel will claim "Sugar 0." Whether you use a Nutrition Facts panel or Supplement Facts panel depends on what’s in the bottle. Dietary supplements require a Supplement Facts panel, while general foods require a Nutrition Facts panel.

Shown, are two panels, one is a Supplement Facts panel and the other is a Nutrition Facts panel. They each represent a protein powder and illustrate the difference between the two types of panels. The Supplement Facts panel is for NutraBio Plant Protein. It's set up this way because it fits the definition of a dietary supplement. There is zero sugar per serving, so neither "sugar" nor "0" appears on the panel.

The Nutrition Facts panel is for NutraBio MRP, which stands for meal replacement powder. As I mentioned above, a meal replacement cannot be classified as a dietary supplement. So in this case, a Nutrition Facts panel was used. Note that there are zero added sugars just like Plant Protein, but in this example "Added Sugars" and "0" are listed on the panel.

The Federal cGMP manufacturing regulations also differ based on whether a product is a food or dietary supplement. Title 21 CFR Part 111 is the set of regulations for manufacturing, packaging, labeling or holding of dietary supplements, while Title 21 Part 100 encompasses a totally different set of regulations for foods.

Like I stated early on, labels are a bit confusing and what makes it worse is that many products are mislabeled, most mistakenly but many purposely, but that’s a topic for another day.