The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing to "fix" a 20-year-old system that almost everyone thought was working well--the U.S. RDAs--Recommended Daily Allowances. These are the federal guidelines for the amount of vitamins and minerals Americans need each day.
The FDA not only wants to use new names for these guidelines--RDI (Reference Daily Intake) for professionals to use and DV (Daily Value) on food labels--but it also wants to cut drastically the existing U.S. RDA levels for such nutrients as vitamins A, D, E, B-12, folate, calcium and iron by anywhere from 10% to 80%.
The outcry over this proposal among the nation's leading nutrition experts has been loud and angry.
Experts from Nobel laureate Linus Pauling to Tufts University president Jean Mayer have called on the government to reconsider the plan. Groups such as the American Medical Assn. and the American Assn. for Retired Persons have criticized the proposed new terms as exceedingly confusing to both professionals and consumers. They say also that the reduced nutrient levels will put large numbers of the population, such as the poor and elderly, at risk for nutritional deficiencies.
Nationally, experts have focused their criticism of the plan on two points:
* That it sets levels too low to protect all segments of the population.
* That it ignores current research that shows that higher levels of nutrients could help prevent disease.
The first point has brought the sharpest rebukes, because it questions the method the FDA used to calculate the new nutrient levels and the change in thinking that this represents.
Since 1968, the U.S. RDAs have been based on data provided by the National Academy of Sciences. Every five to eight years, the NAS would come up with its own RDAs for various age groups and the government would use the highest of these figures to compute its U.S. RDAs. According to the January, 1973, Federal Register, "the highest values were selected to assist all segments of the population" in preventing deficiencies.
Last year, however, the federal government seemingly changed its philosophy. No longer was the goal to provide the highest safe level that would protect the widest range of people. Instead, the agency used a different mathematical formula to come up with a lower average level that is sufficient for a narrower range of the population.
"We thought this average value was an easier concept (for the public to understand) than giving them the maximum value," says Virginia Wilkening of the FDA's regulatory affairs staff. "With the levels set high, we were giving the erroneous assumption that you're not getting 100% of the U.S. RDA if you don't reach that level," when in fact a healthy American probably doesn't need quite so much of those nutrients, she explains.
In addition, says Christine Lewis, deputy chief of the FDA's clinical nutrition branch, consumer focus groups have been telling FDA staffers that they assumed the U.S. RDAs were average amounts anyway. "Since we can only pick one value to put on food labels, we wanted it to be a general guide, not a prescription for any one individual to use to plan their diet," Lewis says.
Wilkening also stresses that the proposed RDIs are lower because they're based on the newest recommendations from the National Academy of Science, which are also lower.
"The existing U.S. RDAs are based on 1968 data. We wanted to use the most current information (from the NAS), which was released in 1989, and those values are much lower. Americans don't need as many vitamins and minerals as was thought before," says Wilkening.
Even so, the proposed RDIs in most cases are still below the NAS's maximum recommendations--a fact that doesn't bother Paul R. Thomas of the NAS.
Thomas, who was the staff officer for the committee that put together the academy's 1989 RDAs, agrees that the existing U.S. RDAs are too high for the majority of Americans and says the proposed RDIs are "a more useful ballpark figure."