Nutrition Label Unit Changes -- And the Reasons Behind Them

By: Watson Team on Jul 25, 2019

One of the many recent nutrition label changes underway is the change in units for four nutrients—vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and folate. Here’s a quick guide to how these units are changing and the reasons why.

Nutrition Label Unit Changes

Nutrient Old Unit New Unit
Vitamin A IU mcg RAE (Retinol Activity Equivalents)
Vitamin D IU mcg*
Vitamin E IU mg a-tocopherol
Folate mcg mcg DFE (Dietary Folate Equivalents)

*Voluntary labeling of IUs in parentheses alongside the required mcg units is permitted for vitamin D.

Vitamin A

The nutrition label units for vitamin A are changing from IU (International Units) to mcg RAE (Retinol Activity Equivalents) based on the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations adopted by the FDA. The reason for this change is that IU does not account for the difference in vitamin A activity between the vitamin A in animal foods (retinol) and the provitamin A carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) found in some plants. 

Since carotenoids have less vitamin A activity than retinol, the RAE unit will be used to standardize for activity level. For example, 1 RAE = 1 mcg of retinol = 12 mcg of dietary beta-carotene = 24 mcg of dietary a-carotene or b-cryptoxanthin. Use of this measure on the nutrition label is also recommended for consistency with the DRIs.

Other nutrition label changes for vitamin A include a Daily Value (DV) decrease from 5,000 IU to 900 mcg RAE to reflect the latest nutrition science and a change from mandatory label nutrient to voluntary.

Vitamin D

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 has identified vitamin D as a nutrient of public health concern for Americans, due to its low consumption and the health concerns associated with this. One of the many nutrition label changes surrounding vitamin D is the new mandatory labeling of this nutrient on the nutrition facts panel. 

Download our Guide to Nutrients of Concern

In addition, the units for vitamin D are changing from IU to mcg (although the FDA will permit voluntary IU labeling in parentheses alongside the mandatory declaration in the new units.) The unit change to mcg is based on the IOM’s recommendation that the units of measure should be consistent with the DRIs. 

The voluntary inclusion of IU on the label is being provided as an option to manufacturers who wish to present a product’s vitamin D content in units more familiar to consumers (especially for those seeking out vitamin D and those at risk of deficiency). Seeing mcg and IU together on the label may help to transition consumers to the new units. 

Another of the important nutrition label changes for vitamin D is an increase in DV, which is doubling from 400 IU to 20 mcg (800 IU). 

Vitamin E

Vitamin E’s nutrition label units are changing from IU to mg a-tocopherol (alpha-tocopherol). This new unit takes into account the difference in activity between naturally occurring and synthetic vitamin E. Synthetic vitamin E (all-rac-alpha-tocopherol) has only half of the activity of naturally occurring vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol).

Only these forms of vitamin E can be used in the label declaration. While there are many other forms of vitamin E, these are the only forms that have biological activity and are maintained in the blood. This unit change, which reflects the most current science, was recommended by the IOM and is consistent with the DRIs.

Furthermore, the DV for vitamin E has been reduced from 30 IU to 15 mg alpha-tocopherol. 

Folate

For folate (also known as vitamin B9), the nutrition label units are changing from mcg to mcg DFE (Dietary Folate Equivalents). The IOM developed this new unit to account for the higher bioavailability of synthetic folic acid compared with folate naturally present in foods. A product’s mcg DFE is calculated as follows: mcg DFE = (mcg food folate) + (1.7 x mcg synthetic folic acid).

Daily Value Changes with Unit Changes for Vitamins A, D, E, and Folate

Nutrient Old DV  New DV
Vitamin A 5000 IU 900 mcg RAE 
Vitamin D 400 IU 20 mcg
Vitamin E 30 IU 15 mg a-tocopherol
Folate 400 mcg 400 mcg DFE 

 

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Looking Ahead

As manufacturers implement the new nutrition label regulations, they can take heart in knowing that they’re making a positive change in the food industry and helping consumers make healthy food choices based on the latest nutrition science. 

For a complete list of the nutrition label changes, download our Comprehensive Guide to the New Nutrition and Supplement Panels.