Constance J. Geiger

The process for updating the Dietary Reference Intakes—nutrient reference values to be used for food labeling—is finally underway.

The values currently used for food labeling are based on the 1968 Recommended Dietary Allowances, the 1989 Diet and Health Report, and other dietary recommendations and are in need of revision. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture want to update the label values to reflect the current science, with a focus on vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. The values must be applicable to both conventional foods and dietary supplements.

Accordingly, in 2001, the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board established a Committee on Use of Dietary Reference Intakes in Nutrition Labeling. The committee will collect information over a two-year period for a report to assist FDA, USDA, and Health Canada in setting values to be used in food labeling.

The committee’s charge is to “assess the objectives, rationale, and recommendations for the methodology to select reference values for labeling the nutritive value of foods based on the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) and discretionary fortification of foods including meat and poultry products. The study will identify general guiding principles for use in setting reference values for nutrients on the food label, recognizing that there may be modifications of the approach based on special situations or physiological needs related to each nutrient; these modifications will be outlined and the rationale for them described.”

The committee sponsored a workshop in May 2002. Presentations covered historical perspectives on nutrition labeling in the U.S. and Canada and consumer understanding of nutrition labels and use of the Daily Values (DVs) on the label.

The values currently used for food labeling (DVs) are based on the 1968 Recommended Dietary Allowances, the 1989 Diet and Health Report, and other dietary recommendations. The updated DVs will be based on the new DRIs. A number of groups, including the American Dietetic Association, National Food Processors Association, International Life Sciences Institute, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, and Center for Science in the Public Interest addressed the implications of using the new DRIs for nutrition labeling.

Since consumers use label values to compare the nutrient content of products, verify nutrient content and health claims, determine if the food has a little or a lot of a nutrient, and avoid certain nutrients, the presenters at the workshop mentioned numerous factors that affect the values used for labeling. Questions to be considered include:
Should label values be used for the most vulnerable populations? For example, should the label value for iron be based on needs of menstruating women, as it has in the past?

How should the “Tolerable Upper Intake Levels” (ULs) be handled? The UL is the highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population. For example, the UL of folic acid for children overlaps with the requirement for adults. How do we balance the health implications of ULs with inadequate intake?

Should the RDAs and/or the Adequate Intake (AI) levels be used? AIs are the observed average or experimentally determined intakes by a defined population or subgroup that appear to sustain a defined nutritional status such as normal circulating nutrient values.

Should more than one group of values be used for labeling, especially for dietary supplements that are formulated for specific age groups? 

The committee’s report is due in October 2003. FDA and USDA will then review the report and publish a proposed rule indicating the values they will recommend for food labeling. The proposed rule will likely be published in 2005. Comments are usually collected for 90 days and then must be reviewed by the agencies before a final rule is published. This process is anticipated to take two years, until 2007. The effective/uniform compliance date would be about three years later, 2010. 

The study is headed by FNB Deputy Directors Romy Gunther-Nathan and Linda D. Meyers (phone 202-334-1732). Further information about the project can be found on the Current Projects Web site at Click on “Current Projects” and search on “nutrition labeling.” Comments may be submitted at any time during the project’s duration by clicking on the “Feedback” button on the “cover page” of this project. Committee meeting information is also provided. 

By being aware of the process and contributing comments, industry can affect the outcome.

President, Geiger & Associates
Research Associate Professor
Div. of Foods and Nutrition,
University of Utah, Salt Lake City