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THE QUESTION

What does “Per Cent Daily Value” mean on food labels? How does it apply to my diet? How do I know what the per cent daily values are for fruits and vegetables?

THE ANSWER

On every nutrition label you’ll find a daily value percentage (per cent DV) for fat, saturated and trans fat, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Although not mandatory, you may also see this information for other nutrients such as cholesterol, folate, vitamins D and E, potassium and zinc.

Defining daily values

The percentage you read on nutrition labels is based on the following daily values, or recommended daily intakes, of various nutrients.

Daily values are average recommended intakes; they don’t represent recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) adjusted for age, gender, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

  • Total fat: 65 g
  • Saturated fat and trans fat: 20 g
  • Cholesterol: 300 mg
  • Sodium: 2,400 mg
  • Potassium: 3,500 mg
  • Total carbohydrate: 300 g
  • Fibre: 25 g
  • Vitamin A: 1,000 RE (retinol equivalents)
  • Vitamin D: 200 IU
  • Vitamin E: 10 mg
  • Vitamin C: 60 mg
  • Folate: 220 mcg
  • Calcium: 1,100 mg
  • Magnesium: 250 mg
  • Iron: 14 mg
  • Zinc: 9 mg

These percentages, established for the purposes of nutritional labelling, are based on Daily Values (DV) or “average” recommended daily intakes for people aged two or older. The DV is not synonymous with “recommended dietary allowances” (RDAs), which are age- and sex-specific nutrient amounts needed to maintain health in a person who is already healthy.

For example, women aged 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day; the RDA for older women is 1,200 mg. The DV for calcium is 1,100 mg. Adolescent boys need 11 mg of iron each day whereas teenage girls require 15 mg to account for menstrual losses. The DV for iron is set at 14 mg.

That doesn’t mean daily value percentages aren’t useful. They tell you the contribution (from 0 to 100 per cent) one serving (check the serving size!) of a particular food makes toward the daily recommended intake (i.e. daily value). You can use them to get a sense of whether a food contains only a little (5 per cent DV or less) or a lot (15 per cent DV or more) of a nutrient.

Of course you can also look at the amounts of a nutrient in one serving. But most people don’t know how 7 grams of fat, 5 grams of fibre or 480 mg of potassium relates to their daily requirements. That’s where the daily percentage comes in. It gives you a quick overview and lets you compare brands to find products higher or lower in nutrients important to you.

There is no daily value percentage for protein because, according to Health Canada, most Canadians get enough in their diet. You also won’t find a daily value percentage for sugar since there is no recommended amount of sugar to consume.

The daily value percentage isn’t meant to tally your nutrient intake for the day until you get to 100 per cent. Other foods that don’t have nutrition labels like fruits, vegetables and fresh meat, poultry and fish also contribute to your recommended nutrient intakes.

For fun, I calculated the daily value percentages for nutrients you’d see if fresh fruit and vegetables were required to have a Nutrition Facts table. (Notice that fresh, unprocessed food outranks many packaged foods when it comes to many disease-fighting vitamins and minerals.)

Bottom line: The daily value percentage is just one part of the big picture. You need to read the entire label, including the ingredient list, to know what – and how much – you’re eating.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel’s Direct; lesliebeck.com.

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