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What is reference intake as seen on food labels and why is it important

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So you have been checking food labels for nutrition information in a supermarket or have been searching over the internet for such information and all you get is certain amount against something called Adult Reference Intake.

Now, you wonder why and what is this adult reference intake and how is it applicable to me?

What is reference intake as seen on food labels

Search no more as we give you a simple explanation of what is an adult reference intake and why it is important while checking for nutrition information.

We will also explain if you should be really precise about it or not. So lets get started

What is Daily Adult Reference Intake?

Daily adult reference intake is an average value against which the nutrition information is bench-marked.

The daily reference intake suggests how much calories and nutrients an average individual should eat on a daily basis to meet its requirements.

The key point to understand here is that it is an average reference intake for an adult.

Since every individual is different based on height, weight, genetics, health conditions and other such parameters hence the average reference intake cannot be simply applied to everyone on a one solution fit all basis.

The reference intake however is able to help in understanding what should be the near ideal scenario for an adult.

While each nutrient has a standard reference intake, the key ones that you will mostly find are –

  • Energy aka Calories – 8,400 KJ / 2000 Kcal
  • Total Fat – Less than 70g
  • Saturated Fat – Less than 20g
  • Carbohydrates – 260g or more
  • Sugar – 90g
  • Protein – 50g
  • Salt – 6g or less
Reference intake of Sugar counts – Sugar from Milk, Fruits, Vegetables and Added Sugar in many food items such as fruit juices

The reference intakes are rough estimates that should act as guidelines to help you achieve your health objectives.

High and low values for key parameters

Based on a food item, manufacturers provide detail of various nutrition either in serving size or per 100g basis.

As a vigilant consumer you must remember that the per serving size for a food item can be cleverly managed by the food manufacturer and may become bit misleading.

In such circumstances you should see if the serving size as mentioned by the manufacturer actually serves the said purpose and is fulfilling.

For example, many Cornflakes manufacturers and manufacturers of similar food items tend to take very low serving size ~ 30 g serving size and recommend consumers to go for these servings only thrice per day to reduce weight.

In normal circumstances these serving sizes appear completely unrealistic or to be considered a healthy alternative for reducing weight.

Read more – Understand the secrets of body mass index

Though, the proportion of various nutrients remain same an average consumer may choose a particular food item and may overlook if it is being shown as Red in the food label. Nutrients marked as Red imply they are way above the recommended adult reference intake limit.

Keeping marketing strategy aside there are few guidelines on what is considered high or low for certain nutrients –

Daily Adult Reference Intake for Salt

While many food item may specify if they are rich in Salt few may mention about Sodium content in a food item.

The chemical composition of a Salt is Sodium Chloride (NaCl) and from health perspective it is the Sodium within Salt which is of prime concern when medical professionals talk about Salt in food item.

To convert Sodium to Salt you can multiply the Sodium content by a factor of 2.5 to understand how much Salt should be considered for a food item and if it is within the recommended limit.

So as per Adult Reference Intake, these are the high and low limits for Salt

High in Salt – 1.5 g per 100 g of food item

Low in Salt – 0.3 g or less of Salt per 100 g

CDC – 90% of Americans 2 years old or older consume too much sodium

Daily Adult Reference Intake for Sugar

Reference intake for Sugars include Sugar from Milk, Fruits, Vegetables etc as well as any added Sugar in a food item.

As per Adult reference intake following are the high and low limits for Sugar –

High in Sugar – More than 22.5g total sugars per 100 g

Low in Sugar – 5g or less of Sugar per 100 g

Daily Adult Reference Intake for Fat

Contrary to old beliefs, based on new research studies fat is not necessarily bad for your health but you need to be careful with what fat you are consuming and by how much.

As per Adult reference intake following are the high and low limits for Fat –

High in Fat – More than 17.5g Fat per 100 g

Low in Fat – 3g or less of Fat per 100 g

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Daily Adult Reference Intake for Saturated Fat

Saturated Fat is often called as amount of saturates in a food item.

As per Adult reference intake following are the high and low limits for Saturated Fat –

High in Saturated Fat – More than 5g Saturated Fat per 100 g

Low in Saturated Fat – 1.5g or less of Saturated Fat per 100 g

Bottom Line

The average adult reference intake is a guideline which can be used to understand how much an average person should consume on a daily basis to maintain good health.

Adult reference intake is a rough estimate and also should help to guide you achieve your health and fitness goals.

The high and low values for various nutrients must help you plan your diet better and ensure you get required nutrients in correct amount.

Remember to read the numbers mentioned by the food manufacturers in food labels carefully to plan your diet.

The number can be sometimes a bit misleading as they may be based on a serving size as defined by the manufacturer.

In the end, we recommend you to be vigilant on the food items that you consume and plan to cut down on processed food items as much as possible to stay healthy.