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Translating the “Alphabet Soup” of Nutrient-Intake

To make sense of food labels, you have to be able to distinguish among multiple individual nutrient-intake standards—which can apply to people of different ages, genders and life stages (pregnancy and lactation, for instance)—and the nutrient intake standards used in food labeling. A two- or three-letter acronym represents each of these standards; here’s a look at the principles behind them:

RDA. Recommended Dietary Allowances were first published by the Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 1943 (Harper 1985) and were revised every 5-10 years as new scientific information became available. Still updated periodically, RDAs are now a subcategory of the Dietary Reference Intakes (see below).

DRI. Dietary Reference Intakes were introduced in 1997 when the IOM broadened its scope by including not only RDAs but also new nutrient-intake standards that apply to several life-stage and gender groups (see Table 1). DRI tables can be downloaded at http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/dietary-guidance/dietary-reference-intakes/dri-tables.

DV. Daily Values are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; they’ve been required on food labels since 1994. DVs have two subclasses:

  • DRV. Daily Reference Values can vary depending on caloric requirements. Information on the labels is intended to apply to people aged 4 years and older. DRVs typically apply to daily diets of 2,000 and 2,500 calories, although there are also DRVs for 3,200 calories.
  • RDI. Reference Daily Intakes are similar to the U.S. RDAs found on food labels before 1994. RDIs apply mainly to essential vitamins and minerals, with four sets that apply to infants, toddlers, people aged 4 years and older, and pregnant or lactating women. DV tables for each group are available at http://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/dailyvalues.aspx.
  • One problem with DVs on food labels is that many foods, like breakfast cereals, are consumed by people with dramatically different individual nutrient requirements. Owing to space limitations, labels on most food packages will list DRVs for two calorie levels and one set of RDI numbers (typically the 4-and-older category). Thus, DVs provide only a general guideline for comparison, and they won’t necessarily match the specific nutrient needs of the consumer of that product.

    To view the full article that ran in the November issue of IDEA Food and Nutrition Tips click here.


    Harper, A.E. 1985. Origin of Recommended Dietary Allowances—an historic overview. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 41 (1),140-148.

    Steven Hertzler, PhD, RD

    I am a Senior Research Scientist at Abbott Nutrition, working with EAS Sports Nutrition. I have a BS in Dietetics from Viterbo College in LaCrosse, WI, and a PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Minnesota. I am a Registered and Licensed Dietitian in Ohio. I have expertise in sports nutrition and carbohydrate metabolism. I am also a former competitive bodybuilder. I have 20 scientific publications and over 20 years experience as a dietitian.

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