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Understanding nutrition’s “alphabet soup”

published: 04-10-2017 Journal entry icon

If you’re trying to understand the labels on food packaging or articles about nutrition, you might wonder about some of the terms and abbreviations you come across. The “alphabet soup” of acronyms can be confusing, but this article might help.

Nutrition experts at the Institute of Medicine—or IOM—of the National Academies of Sciences developed the Dietary Reference Intakes, or DRI, based on extensive statistics. The following terms and acronyms are from these guidelines.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of a nutrient is the daily amount that essentially all healthy people need, depending on life stage and gender. For example, the RDAs of some nutrients (such as vitamin C) for a 13-year-old boy are very different from those for a 25-year-old pregnant woman. It isn’t always the same as the Daily Value (DV) you see on food labels, but it’s usually close.

The Adequate Intake (AI) is the adequate daily amounts of a nutrient that healthy people of a particular life stage or gender need. AIs are given when there isn’t enough scientific evidence for a stronger recommendation, that is, an RDA. For example, IOM suggests an AI for one type of omega-3 fatty acids—alpha linoleic acid—of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women because scientists don’t know yet how much is optimal.

Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) are the highest daily amounts of nutrients that you can consume without risk of toxicity. Many vitamins and minerals—even essential ones—can be toxic when consumed in excess. For example, because too much vitamin A can cause liver damage, a UL has been established for this essential nutrient.

You generally can meet all your daily nutrient intake goals (RDAs and AIs) by following a healthy diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. So try to remember to get your RDAs and AIs every day, but don’t exceed the ULs!

Updated 10 April 2017


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