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The science of nutrition and healthy eating
The science of nutrition and healthy eating

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3.2 Reference values

There are also dietary reference values (DRVs) in the UK. These are estimates for energy and nutrients for different healthy populations. But they should not be considered as nutritional recommendations or goals. In 1991, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) set these values.

There are four types of DRV.

  • Estimated Average Requirements (EARs): an average where 50% people will require less and 50% will require more for energy or a nutrient.
  • Reference Nutrient Intakes (RNIs): meet the needs of 97.5% of that population group.
  • Lower Reference Nutrient Intakes (LRNIs): only 2.5% of the population would find this level adequate for health.
  • Safe Intake: used when there is not enough evidence to set EAR, RNI or LRNI, but will not have any undesirable effects.

Vitamins and minerals have RNIs and LRNIs.

COMA was disbanded and now the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advises the UK government on diet and health. SACN made revised recommendations in 2011 for energy. A more recent report in 2015 considered carbohydrates, free sugars and fibre. Vitamin D recommendations were also changed in 2016. The aim was to develop food-based guidelines that would contribute to a healthy and well-balanced diet.

There are detailed energy, macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate and protein) and micronutrients (vitamin and mineral) in the British Nutrition Foundation Report (2019) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

The development of RIs for food labelling on packaged food reduced the confusion that GDAs had produced. RIs also allow consumers to make better food choices for a healthier diet. RIs are based on an average adult female and are not individualised or age-specific.

Currently, there are no RIs for children, hence food labels are for adults and not children (Table 2). The main criticism of the RI values is that, on products aimed at children, the values given on the packaging are much too high. This may lead to a higher intake than is appropriate. That is particularly worrying in the light of high levels of childhood obesity in the UK and some other countries.

Table 2 Reference intake values
Energy or nutrientReference intake
Energy8400 kJ (2000 kcal)
Total fat70 g
Saturates20 g
Carbohydrate260 g
Total sugars90 g
Protein50 g
Salt6 g

In Table 2, you need to remember that saturates are part of the total fat and sugars are included within carbohydrates. Although there are RI values for six nutrients and energy in Table 2, you will see that only four of them are used on the front-of-pack labels on food. Carbohydrates and protein are missing. This is because most nutritionists consider that these are less important to avoid, whereas high levels of fat, particularly saturated fats, sugar and salt should be avoided by most people. The full nutritional information should still be provided elsewhere on the packaging.