What Exactly Is in Your Protein Powder? Reading Supplement Labels

Watch out for FDA loopholes

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Does deciphering the label on your favorite nutritional pill or powder feel like trying to learn a foreign language? Professor Ormsbee discusses what dietary supplements are and how to read their labels, known as the Supplement Facts label.

Chocolate protein powder tub
Learn to read Supplement Facts labels and check with your healthcare professionals before taking supplements. Photo By DeymosHR / Shutterstock

Defining Dietary Supplements

Learning to read supplement labels is crucial to your health, as you may be unknowingly putting harmful ingredients in your body. First, though, let’s start with the basics.

A dietary supplement has a very long definition. Technically, supplements are defined as a product that is intended to supplement the diet and contains one or more of the following ingredients: a vitamin, mineral, herb or other botanical; or an amino acid that is a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or a combination of any of these. 

Notice how these products are not intended to replace food that is already in your diet. You might know how to read a conventional food label with the nutrition facts panel, but there are some differences between this label and the Supplement Facts label that we should highlight before we dive into the specifics.

Reading Supplement Labels

 You’ll often see a section with a proprietary blend listed. This means that rather than giving specific amounts of specific ingredients, they are grouped together under a proprietary blend, and only one single amount of all the ingredients in the blend is listed. 

This is a list of ingredients that are part of a product formula specific to a particular manufacturer. It’s their secret ingredient. 

The Food and Drug Administration does not require the amount of the ingredients in the proprietary blend formula to be listed, which is where consumers tend to run into trouble with supplements. It’s very important to check the labels on any supplement to make sure you know what you’re taking. 

If you see “proprietary blend,” you just don’t know how much of each ingredient is in your product. You don’t have to avoid products with a proprietary blend, but Professor Ormsbee recommends working with a sports nutritionist and your physician to see what will work best for you.

If you do see the dose listed—which many quality companies include on their labels already—it’s best to ensure that it matches what the research evidence shows actually works for humans. 

When it comes to supplements for fat loss, muscle gain, and even those that are used for disease prevention, keep in mind that the choice to take any of these should be thought out. Be extremely careful in terms of balancing them with other healthy lifestyle choices you make. As always, it’s a good idea to check with your health professional before adding a supplement to your diet.

Fat-Loss Supplements

Let’s start with fat-loss supplements. It seems like these days, everyone wants to burn fat the easy way. 

“Every time I open up a fitness magazine, there is an advertisement for a new metabolic booster and some products that are even making their way back to the shelves after being banned in the past for having things like ephedrine, a chemical linked to one death and a slew of serious health problems,” Professor Ormsbee said.

The question is, do any fat-burning supplements actually work and are they safe? According to Professor Ormsbee, yes, some do work and some are safe.

Most of these supplements target fat loss in one of three ways: by increasing the fat you burn for energy, by blocking fat storage in your body, or by controlling your calorie intake by suppressing hunger. However, of all the marketed products, only a few can be backed by good research-based evidence

The most common supplement in the fat-burning category is probably something you’ve already had today. It is caffeine. 

In fact, caffeine is the most popularly consumed drug in the world and is also found in many products like coffee, tea, soda, and even chocolate. Stay tuned for more on caffeine and fat loss in tomorrow’s article. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 323 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.