RDA vs. RDI vs. DV: How Are They Different?

By: Watson Team on Apr 4, 2019

There’s RDA, RDI, DV, and more—when it comes to understanding nutrition, it can seem like they’re feeding you alphabet soup! Here we break down the differences among these important nutrient guidelines and see how they impact the nutrition label.

A Brief History of U.S. Nutrient Guidelines

In 1940, a new government committee was formed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, called the National Defense Research Committee, to support scientific research pertaining to wartime issues. The committee decided that determining nutrient intake requirements would be essential for properly feeding troops, as well as providing food aid to populations in need during the war.

The committee approached the National Research Council and the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to establish nutrient recommendations. In 1941, the first Recommended Dietary Allowances report was published. Today, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is a key component of a more comprehensive nutrient guideline framework, known as the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). 

The RDA Today

Today’s RDAs look quite a bit different than they did in 1941. Not only have the values been updated over time to reflect the latest science, but there are now multiple RDAs per nutrient which vary by age and gender, as well as pregnancy and breastfeeding status. 

The RDA is defined as the average daily level of nutrient intake sufficient to meet the requirements of nearly all (97-98%) healthy people. The values are set high to ensure sufficient body nutrient stores over a period of time. RDAs are regularly used in diet planning for population groups, such as military personnel and school children.

Three children smiling.

The FDA’s DV: Creating One Value Out of Many

The government took another landmark step to improve the public’s nutritional health in 1990 with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), a law that required all packaged foods and beverages to bear a nutrition label. However, as the FDA began to develop labeling standards for the industry, a problem quickly arose.

The FDA wanted the nutrition label to include not only the nutrient content of the product, but also some way to show consumers how the product would contribute to their total daily nutrient needs. While the RDAs seemed the obvious choice as a reference for daily nutrient requirements, the FDA needed one value per nutrient that it could apply to everyone. That value would ultimately be the Daily Value (DV).

Two New Values Along the Way

To develop one set of nutrient values that could be used as a reference for nutrition labels, the FDA established two new standards that together would be used to create the DV. One was the Reference Daily Intake (RDI), which was simply a new name for the RDA. The distinction in name is important, though. As RDIs became fixed into regulation, they would not automatically update as new RDAs were published.

The other standard, called Daily Reference Values (DRVs), consisted of nutrients not included in the RDIs, such as fat and fiber. The National Research Council’s book Diet and Health served as the source for these values. Combining the RDIs and DRVs produced the DVs, which are referenced on nutrition and dietary supplement labels in terms of %DV. 

More DVs Required

In most cases, the DV referenced on products is based on a 2,000-calorie per day diet and covers adults and children 4 years and older. However, the FDA did establish three additional sets of DVs to cover infants 1-12 months, children 1-3 years, and pregnant and lactating women. These DVs are used for products specific to these populations.

Woman food shopping in a grocery store.

Putting the Pieces Together

For manufacturers and consumers alike, DVs are generally the most familiar of the nutrition guidelines due to their visibility on the nutrition label. Consumers use %DVs to understand how much of a nutrient is in a serving of product in the context of their total daily intake, as well as to compare products. Manufacturers look closely at %DVs (and adjust formulas as needed) to ensure they’re producing the nutritious products that consumers are looking for.

Understanding how DVs are derived from DRVs and RDIs (which are based on the RDAs) can help make sense of the nutrition label and how it came to be. It also underscores the significance of the recent DV changes to the nutrition label. As a leader in nutritional ingredients, count on Watson to be the go-to source for all your nutrition questions!

For more information, download our Quick Reference Guide to Nutrition today.