Why the Nutrition Facts Label Can Lead You Astray

FDA Nutrition Facts Label 2006On the back of every cereal box, frozen dinner, condiment bottle, and any other packaged food, you will find the Nutrition Facts label.

Introduced by the Food and Drug Administration over 25 years ago, the purpose of this labeling system is to help consumers make more informed food choices.

Thus it would be natural to think you’re covered for, say, vitamin C, if a product’s Nutrition Facts label says it provides 100% of the Daily Value of vitamin C.


But you’d be wrong.

Nutrition Facts labels are required to have information about the nutrients in the food you are eating. Since many people don’t know how much of a specific nutrient they need—such as a particular vitamin or mineral—the labels also include some information on that as well.  This is known as the recommended Daily Value (DV), usually expressed as a percent, or %DV.

%DVs were designed to help you reach the daily recommendations for all nutrients. Though hard to believe, the Daily Values are based on vitamin and mineral recommendations…from 1968!

Yes, you read that correctly. The last 50 years of nutrition research aren’t on the Nutrition Facts label at all.Stores Nutrition Facts on Shelves

But that doesn’t mean the science hasn’t been progressing and that no one is keeping track.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM), a nonprofit group of independent experts who make policy recommendations, periodically reviews the latest scientific literature and sets (or adjusts) a value known as the Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA. If you are taking the RDA each day of a vitamin or mineral, it should be enough for almost all adults to avoid health problems from inadequacy—at least based on the current understanding of the scientific evidence.

As the evidence gets better and more refined, RDAs change. If the data from a number of controlled trials show people need more or less of a particular nutrient to avoid health problems, the RDA will likely change. It is a system designed to keep us in better health.
For reasons involving the convoluted regulations of government agencies, when the law requiring Nutrition Facts labels was enacted in 1990, the %DVs on the label were based on the RDAs from 1968, despite several changes to the RDAs since that time.

The RDA system is built to be responsive since the FDA’s Daily Values (and Nutrition Facts labels) are stuck in the past.

Woman checking Nutrition Facts labelNaturally, health professionals pay more attention to the RDA, but many consumers only look at the Nutrition Facts labels. So if you eat a product that gives you 100% of the DV of vitamin C (60 milligrams), a dietician would tell you that you are not getting enough. The Daily Value of vitamin C translates to only 50-80% of the RDA, depending on if you’re an adult man or woman, pregnant, or a smoker. On the other hand, if a multivitamin Nutrition Facts label shows that it provides 100% of the DV of biotin (300 micrograms), you are actually getting 10 times the level suggested by the IOM.

On a side note, Nutrition Facts labels aren’t required to list any vitamins and minerals except vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and sodium. Why not the others? Because the FDA did not consider them vital for Americans. There are many arguments on how that is not in agreement with current scientific evidence.

But there’s hope on the horizon.  New revisions for the Daily Values on Nutrition Facts labels are due out this year from the FDA.  We hope these changes will help align the %DVs with the RDAs for vitamins and minerals recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

But until that happens, the Linus Pauling Institute suggests people try to pay attention to the RDAs, and not base decisions on the %DV of vitamins and minerals listed in the Nutrition Facts labels.

You can find LPI’s recommendations for each micronutrient (based on our analysis of the scientific evidence) in our Micronutrients for Health brochure. This list states the RDAs for each vitamin and mineral, and highlights the few circumstances in which our opinion differs from that of the Institute of Medicine.


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Alexander Michels, PhD

Alexander Michels is a Research Associate and Communications Officer for the Linus Pauling Institute. He has an extensive background in the research on vitamin C, with a specialty in understanding vitamin C transport through the body. His expertise also extends to research on other aspects of antioxidant vitamin metabolism and the action of phytochemicals.