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Question: I find labels of some supplement bottles misleading. For example, an L-theanine label says 200 mg on the front but the back says each pill contains just 100 mg, noting that a serving is 2 capsules. Is this legal?
Answer: We agree that labels on many dietary supplements could be clearer about what's really in the bottle.
Although the situation you describe is probably not illegal if the front label also indicates this is per serving (rather than per pill), one could be misled. This example shows why it's critical that you carefully read the Supplement Facts panel on the back of vitamins and supplements.
Another misleading tactic we come across as part of our reviews of supplements is the listing of an amount of a "formula," "blend," or "complex" without showing the amounts of the specific ingredients in those formulas. For example, listing 100 mg of a "CoQ10 complex" is not the same as listing 100 mg of CoQ10. The formula may actually contain only a small amount of CoQ10. Formulas, blends, or complexes are required to list their ingredients (in order of the amount, from greatest to least) but the actual amount of each ingredient is not required to be listed. It's better to buy products which list the specific amount of each ingredient.
Similarly, with herbs you'll often want an extract (a concentrated form of the herb) rather than just a powder made from the dried plant. Be sure to check in the Supplement Facts panel that you're getting an extract (if that's what you want). The label is also required to identify the specific part of the plant used because you may need extract from the leaf rather than, for example, the root. Ideally, the label should also state the % of the extract contributed by at least one key plant compound. Our Reviews of herbal supplements (such as Echinacea, St. John's wort, Saw Palmetto, etc.) explain specifically what you should look for on these labels.