When I set out to understand the science behind vitamins — in an effort to sort out the supplement debate — I figured a good place to start would be the nutrition info on the back of prepackaged food, a mandatory fixture in Canada since 2007.
Nutrition facts labels provide information on percentage daily values – which are based on Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for each micronutrient — which were originally calculated way back in 1968.
But when it comes to essential micronutrients, food labels in the United States or Canada are only required to include information on Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron. Whether food manufacturers include data on the other 11 essential vitamins is only optional.
Okay, so what about the data the labels actually do provide? Even though scientists reevaluate the RDAs every few years, manufacturers actually base their numbers on figures over a decade old!
In many cases, the current RDAs are up to 50% higher than the daily values used in current labeling. Take Vitamin C: If you follow the label, all we need to meet the RDA is 60mg, when in fact the RDA for Vitamin C is currently 75mg for women or 90mg for men — 50% higher!
Updated Information Coming Soon?
There is some good news, however: In 2014, the FDA proposed updating food labels for the first time in 20 years, which would include adding information for Vitamin D and potassium, so maybe one day we consumers can actually rely on nutrition labels to inform our dietary needs.
Until then, you can find more detailed RDA information online with the National Institutes of Health or Health Canada. Many online sites exist for optimizing a balanced diet included ChooseMyPlate in the U.S. or Canada’s Food Guide.
While most scientists agree we’ll get everything we need in terms of essential vitamins from “a balanced diet”, it turns out that determining that balance can get pretty complicated.