Calcium: A Quick Guide to this Nutrient of Concern

By: Watson Team on Apr 23, 2019

If there’s one mineral Americans know a lot about, it’s calcium. Thanks to the long-running “Got Milk?” campaign, we know calcium is important for strong bones and that milk contains plenty of it. So why are Americans falling short on this important nutrient? Learn everything you need to know about calcium and the new FDA regulations that affect calcium labeling.

Calcium Declared a Nutrient of Public Health Concern

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 have identified calcium as one of the five nutrients of public health concern for Americans. The others are potassium, vitamin D, dietary fiber, and for women of childbearing age, iron.1 A nutrient of public health concern is one that is under-consumed by the population and has health risks associated with its underconsumption.

Nutrition Label Changes for Calcium

The new nutrition label regulations require all the nutrients of public health concern to be listed on the nutrition panel. Calcium, iron, and dietary fiber remain mandatory label nutrients as before. However, new to the lineup are potassium and vitamin D, which are replacing vitamins A and C. While vitamins A and C are no longer mandatory, they can still be included on the nutrition label as voluntary label nutrients. 

In addition, the vitamins and minerals listed on the nutrition label must be declared in terms of weight (e.g., mg for calcium), as well as % DV. Another change affecting calcium is a DV update from 1000 mg to 1300 mg, an increase of 30%. 

When manufacturers update their nutrition labels, the % DV of calcium must be recalculated based on the new DV. The increase in DV for calcium means that in order to maintain a product’s current % DV declaration, it will most likely be necessary to add more calcium to the product. Product developers should be especially alert to any changes in a product’s taste, mouthfeel, appearance, and pH when they test increased calcium levels in a product.

Fortified Pasta with Calcium 

Why We Need Calcium

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. While calcium is stored primarily in the teeth and bones, a small percentage of the body’s calcium is present in the blood, muscle cells, and nerve cells. The main functions of calcium in the body include:

  • Development and maintenance of teeth and bones
  • Constriction and relaxation of blood vessels
  • Muscle contraction
  • Nerve signaling
  • Secretion of hormones (such as insulin)
  • Blood clotting

Adequate calcium intake is vitally important for maintaining healthy and strong bones over time. When calcium intake is not sufficient to cover the essential functions requiring calcium, calcium is released from the bones to compensate, drawing down the body’s reserves. Insufficient calcium levels are associated with softened or brittle bones, fractures, and osteoporosis.

How Much Calcium Do We Really Need?

To understand how much calcium is recommended, it’s important not to confuse the DV with the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). The DV for calcium, which is now 1300 mg, is a single value that serves as a reference for nutrition labels. The purpose of the DV (by way of the % DV on nutrition labels) is to allow consumers to see how their food choices contribute to their daily nutrient intake, as well as to compare the nutrient contents of different products.

RDAs, however, account for certain factors (i.e., age, sex, pregnancy, and breastfeeding) that allow for more customized nutrient recommendations. As a result, there are usually several different RDAs for one nutrient. The body’s calcium requirement increases throughout childhood, peaks in adolescence, and then declines slightly. Later on, the body’s calcium needs increase again. For calcium, the DV was set to match the highest RDA level, which is the RDA for males and females ages 9 to 18 years.

An RDA is defined as the average daily level of intake needed to meet the requirements of nearly all (97-98%) healthy individuals. When there is not sufficient scientific data to determine an RDA for a nutrient, the Adequate Intake (AI) is used instead. This is the case for calcium for ages 0 to 12 months. The AI for calcium in this age range is based on the average calcium content of breast milk for an assumed intake volume.

calcium functions for web-1

Recommended Iron Intakes for Different Groups.

Age Male Female Pregnant Lactating
0-6 months 200 mg 200 mg    
7-12 months 260 mg 260 mg    
1-3 years 700 mg 700 mg    
4-8 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg    
9-13 years 1,300 mg 1,300 mg    
14-18 years 1,300 mg 1,300 mg 1,300 mg 1,300 mg
19-50 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg 1,000 mg 1,000 mg
51-70 years 1,000 mg 1,200 mg    
71+ years 1,200 mg 1,200 mg    

 

Chalk board with the word calcium surrounded by nuts, cheese and legumes.

Food Sources of Calcium

While calcium is strongly associated with dairy products (which contain very high levels), dairy is not the only source of calcium. Large amounts of calcium can be found in the following types of foods:

  • Dairy products – especially milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Dark leafy greens – such as kale, turnip greens, and bok choy
  • Seeds – especially chia, sesame, and poppy seeds
  • Fish with edible bones – such as canned sardines and salmon
  • Certain legumes – such as white beans and edamame
  • Calcium-fortified foods and beverages – such as tofu, soy milk, orange juice, and breakfast cereal

Almonds, amaranth, dried figs, and blackstrap molasses also contribute some calcium. In addition, there is a small amount of calcium naturally present in grains. This calcium contribution becomes notable due to the high consumption of grain-based products (especially bread) that's characteristic of the American diet.

The Important Role of Vitamin D

A variety of factors are known to impact calcium absorption. One of the most significant of these is vitamin D. Vitamin D, which can be synthesized by the skin during exposure to sunlight or consumed through the diet, is known to improve calcium absorption.

Insufficient vitamin D carries with it the same health risks as insufficient calcium. Unfortunately, vitamin D is another nutrient of public health concern, meaning many Americans are not consuming enough. Dietary intake of vitamin D is particularly important for those living in northern latitudes (where intense sunlight is scarce in the winter) and for those who spend little time outdoors.

For products that contain calcium, either naturally or through fortification, manufacturers should pay close attention to the vitamin D content. As consumers become increasingly aware of the relationship between calcium and vitamin D, they will likely expect their calcium-containing foods and beverages to contain vitamin D (as is common in dietary supplements). The new mandatory nutrition labeling of vitamin D will put a spotlight on this important nutrient.

Making the Future of Food Even Better

Though healthy eating may be trending, we still have a lot left to do—as manufacturers and consumers—before we’re all eating healthy. Formulating with careful attention to the nutrients of public health concern (which are also mandatory label nutrients) will go a long way toward improving the health of a public that loves packaged foods. 

If you're interested in learning more, please click to download our Guide to the Nutrients of Concern.

References

1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed. (2015). Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/