Just grab any food item that is handy and you will notice two clearly indicated values, marked as Guideline Daily Amounts (or GDA for short) and Reference Intakes (RI for short). These common and internationally used systems are used on food packaging throughout Europe to indicate the maximum daily recommended amount of various nutrients when consuming certain types of food, including calories, fats, salts and sugars.

What’s on this page?

Using this information, the consumers can then make informed choices regarding the nutritional value of the food purchased and the amount ingested.

Usually noticeable in the form of a table on the rear side of the food packaging, the list of nutritional values would mention things such as, for example, amount of fat found in 100 grams of specific foodstuff (where applicable) or the amount of fat per 100 grams. Alongside this value, you will find the percentage of the maximum daily amount of fat that the given number represents.

Are GDA and RI different values?

While they serve the same purpose, GDAs and RIs are different measures, with GDA detailing the maximum recommended amounts of any given nutrient for adult males, females and children and RIs giving the guideline amounts for active adult females with no special dietary requirements or considerations (with assumed daily intake of 2000 kcal).

A closer look at recommended intake values

When it comes to recommended intakes for adults, we can list them in the following manner:

Energy/Nutrient Reference intake
·       Energy

·       Total fat

·       Saturates

·       Carbohydrates

·       Total sugars

·       Proteins

·       Salts

·       8400kJ(2000kcal)

·       70g

·       20g

·       260g

·       90g

·       50g

·       6g

The colour-coding on food packaging

Many food manufacturers and retailers opt for simplified nutritional details on the front side of their packaging, usually with so-called ‘traffic light’ system. As the name implies, this system uses red, yellow and green to signify that any given foodstuff is rich in certain types of nutrients. Of course, as is the convention, colour red will signify high concentration, yellow medium one and green low concentration.

The main advantage of this system is that it will allow you to easily identify the recommended way of consumption for any given type of food. We will provide you with some examples that might help to illustrate this:

  • A pack of biscuits with numerous red labels should be eaten only occasionally
  • Tin of soup with yellow labels can be enjoyed in moderate amounts
  • Muesli with mostly green labels are a healthy option that can be safely enjoyed

The history of GDAs and RIs

GDAs as a way of measuring nutrient value of different foodstuffs was first introduced in the United Kingdom, back in 1998 as a part of a joint programme of the government, food industry and consumer organisations. In this early period, the labelling used to simply specify the amount of calories, fats and saturated fats, only to be expanded later on so it includes sugars, proteins, salts, fibres and carbohydrates.

This trend slowly spread through other countries, becoming the industry standard on the Old Continent. RIs were introduced somewhat later, after the changes in EU legislation in 2014 that were aimed at making the information easier to understand through standardisation throughout the European Union. As it would seem, the most recent trend is marked by the slow disappearance of GDAs with just RIs being necessarily present on all food packaging in the EU.

Inspired by the success of European system, other countries mimicked it. For example, Australia introduced Daily Intake Guide in 2006, while the US’ response was given in the form of so-called Facts-Up-Front system.

How to use GDAs and RIs to properly manage health?

It is important to note that amounts specified in GDAs and RIs are not intended to be used as target values, but as a guide to the maximum levels of nutrient constituents you should have in your diet, on a daily basis. If you fail to adhere to these guidelines, your diet will be considered unhealthy, meaning that you will be at risk of weight gain and numerous other health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

However, keep in mind that physical activity is an integral part of being and staying healthy, so even following these guidelines while at the same time leading a predominantly sedentary life might not be enough to ensure you will not gain weight or develop any of the mentioned conditions. Working out is absolutely essential to staying healthy and cannot be omitted.

Are GDAs and RIs really effective in managing weight?

There is no final answer to this and the debate on the effectiveness of this information is still going on. Some studies, like the one conducted by European Food Information Council in 2008, seem to indicate that the majority of people reading food labels, as much as 80% of them, really managed to determine which products are healthier and thus make better and more informed choices that were directly reflected in their health.

At the same time, some experts in the field argue that values provided by the GDA and RI systems are just too general to be useful. In other words, they can be successfully implemented in the case of average, healthy and active individuals with no underlying health problems. On top of that RI system provides absolutely no information on guideline amounts for children, which makes their effectiveness certainly limited.

Of course, having easy access to crucial nutritional information during shopping certainly made it much easier for individuals to manage their diets if they choose to, but at the same time, there are absolutely no indications that the simple introduction of this information on food packaging does anything to halt the obesity epidemic that is affecting as much as 25.6% of adults and 10% of children in the UK. Studies indicate that by middle of the century, as much as 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and 25% of children will be overweight, provided that the trends noticeable today continue with the same intensity.