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Making Sense of RDAs

Anna Soref

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Making Sense of RDAs

When customers question you about nutrition label acronyms, do you find yourself as confused as they are? RDAs are one thing, but throw in DRIs, ULs and EARs, and it?s easy to get a bit lost. Read on for a primer that will take you through the acronyms of nutrition requirements.

The labels that you now see on supplements products are the result of the 1990 Nutrition and Labeling Act. In 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required that Recommended Daily Allowances on product labels be replaced with Daily Values, intending to make them easier for consumers to read and understand. Percentage of Daily Values, the number that now actually appears on labels, is comprised of two reference sets: Daily Reference Values and Reference Daily Intakes. For a description of all the acronyms used for nutrition requirements, see sidebar, below.

Although the terms and numbers may have changed, they are still based on the original Recommended Dietary Allowances that were created in the 1940s for soldiers in World War II. The recommendations aimed to prevent specific diseases, says Jordan Rubin, author of The Makers Diet (Siloam Press, 2004). ?For example, the RDA for vitamin D was based on the amount of vitamin D that you needed to prevent rickets,? he says.

Even though the numbers are updated by the Academy of Sciences every few years, whether the nutrient levels are too high or too low has caused an ongoing argument among health practitioners since their introduction.

?My take is that they are low,? says Rubin. ?They are not the amount of nutrients you need for optimal health; they are the amount of nutrients you need to prevent disease. Most health practitioners agree that the RDI for some of the B vitamins is too low, and although many people feel that calcium is too low, I think that it?s probably OK. The problem is that many people are not meeting their vitamin D RDI, which can result in calcium deficiency,? says Rubin.

So what should retailers tell a consumer about how much of a vitamin or mineral to take? ?My recommendation is that retailers know the Upper Levels for nutrients, most of which are reasonable,? says John Hathcock, vice president of scientific and international affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition in Washington, D.C. Niacin in particular is far too low, he says. And what about those consumers who want to megadose nutrients, often antioxidants? ?For most nutrients, the possibility of an overdose related to labeling values is just a bogus issue,? says Hathcock. He points to vitamin C, which has a DV of 60 mg but a UL of 2,000 mg, which is still not a drop-dead number, he says.

He does warn, though, that individuals should pay attention to vitamin A consumption. ?Some people get too much of it without fortified foods or supplements simply because they are fond of liver and eggs,? he says. Too much vitamin A may lead to birth defects and bone fragility, he says.

In December 2003, the Institutes of Medicine released a report with recommendations to the FDA on how best to use the Dietary Reference Intakes on product labels. The report suggests that DVs be based on Estimated Average Requirements (based on a population-weighted average) instead of Recommended Dietary Allowance (based on the highest age-gender group). ?They have recommended a profound shift that I find scientifically indefensible,? Hathcock says. ?With a population-weighted average, you throw in the needs for iron of a 4-year-old child with those of adult women that would drop the current number [for adult women] from 18 mg to 6. Frankly, it baffles me,? he says. If the FDA accepts these new numbers, it could have serious negative health consequences for the population, particularly the young and the elderly, according to Hathcock. Currently, CRN is working to stop the FDA from turning these recommendations into law. Instead, CRN is advocating new DVs based on current scientific data, but with numbers determined on the same populations.

For more information including the current DVs and ULs for vitamins and minerals, visit

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 34, 37

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