What are 'reference intakes' on food labels?

You'll see reference intakes referred to on food labels. These are guidelines based on the approximate amount of nutrients and energy you need for a healthy, balanced diet each day.

Reference intakes (RIs) are not intended as targets, as energy and nutrient requirements are different for all people. But they give a useful indication of how much energy the average person needs and how a particular nutrient fits into your daily diet.

The term "reference intakes" (or "RIs") has replaced “guideline daily amounts” (“GDAs”), which used to appear on food labels. But the basic principle behind these two terms is the same. 

Adult reference intakes

Unless the label says otherwise, RI values are based on an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity. This is to reduce the risk of people with lower energy requirements eating too much, as well as to provide clear and consistent information on labels.

As part of a healthy balanced diet, an adult's reference intakes ("RIs") for a day are:

The RI for total sugars includes sugars from milk and sugars contained in fruit, as well as added sugar. See How much sugar is good for me? for more information.

Many food manufacturers include nutrition labels on the packaging that give information on the amount of each nutrient, such as fat, sugars and salt.

This information can be expressed as as a percentage of the reference intake for that nutrient. Percentage reference intakes (%RIs) can be given:

  • by weight (per 100g)
  • by volume (per 100ml)
  • and/or by portion 

When percentage RIs are provided on a "per 100g/ml" basis, food manufacturers have to include the statement "Reference intake of an average adult (8400kJ/2000kcal)" alongside.

The term “reference intakes” (or “RIs”) has replaced “guideline daily amounts” (“GDAs”), which used to appear on food labels

If you are trying to lose weight, your average daily energy requirement will be lower than if you want your weight to remain stable. If you are currently overweight, the BMI calculator embedded on this page can give you a guide to the amount of calories you should aim for to help you lose weight the healthy way.

Reference intakes for energy, total fat, saturates, sugars and salt

Information on the RI and the contribution a nutrient makes towards a RI (expressed as a percentage) can usually be found on the back or side of packaging. The percentage RI for certain nutrients may also be repeated on the front of the pack.

For example, the label above, taken from a box of apple pies, shows that each pie will provide you with 19.2 grams of sugars, which represents 21% of your RI for sugars. In other words, one pie contains about a fifth of an adult's RI for sugars.

The calorie checker tool embedded on this page is a convenient way to track how many calories there are in thousands of different foods and drinks.

Change in guidelines for levels of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt

There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high in fat, saturated fat ("saturates"), sugars or salt, or not. 

These guidelines were reviewed and in some cases changed by the Department of Health in 2013. The updated figures are as follows:

Total fat

High in fat: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low in fat: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat ("saturates")

High in saturated fat: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low in saturated fat: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g 

Sugars

High in sugars: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low in sugars: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

Salt

The term "salt" is now used on food labels, rather than "sodium". The amount of salt is calculated by determining the total sodium in a product (both naturally occurring and from additives) and multiplying it by 2.5.

High in salt: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g
Low in salt: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g 

For example, if you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, limit your consumption of foods that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g, as these are considered high in saturated fat. The reference intake for saturated fat is 20g a day.

Examples of foods that can be high in saturated fat include pies, cakes and biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon, and cheese and cream. Find out more about cutting down on foods high in saturated fat

Nutrition labelling and guidelines

Find out more about food labelling, including label colour-coding, ingredients list, front-of-pack and other nutrition labels in Food labels.

Find out what certain terms and claims on food labels mean, including "use by", "best before", "low fat" and "no added sugar" in Food labelling terms.

Page last reviewed: 10/07/2014

Next review due: 10/07/2017

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