The guideline daily amount (GDA) and reference intakes (RIs) systems are methods used on food packaging to communicate to people the maximum daily recommended amounts of various nutrients when consuming food, including calories, fat, salt and sugar.

This enables them to make informed choices about the nutritional value of the food they are buying.

Taking the form of a table on the rear of food packaging, the nutritional value would list, for example, the amount of fat found in one serving and/or 100 grams of a foodstuff, alongside the percentage of the recommended maximum daily amount of fat for an individual that it represents.

What is the difference between GDAs and RIs?

GDAs and RIs essentially serve the same purpose, with one fundamental difference:

  • GDAs detail the maximum recommended amounts of nutrients separately for adult females, adult males and children.
  • RIs simply use the guideline amounts for female adults, more specifically an active adult female with no particular dietary requirements and an intake of 2000 kcal per day.

What are the Recommended Intake values?

Recommended intakes for adults are outlined in the two diagrams immediately below:

TREATED - Food Daily Intake Reference Aug 16 Proof 1a

How is colour coding used on food packaging?

Many food manufacturers and supermarkets also include simplified nutritional details on the front of their packaging, along with what is known as the ‘traffic light’ system.

Introduced by the Food Standards Agency in 2005, this is used to signify when a food is high (red), medium (yellow) or low (green) in any particular category.

This information is typically presented in summary form on the front of food packaging (below left) and in more detail in the form of a plain table on the reverse (below right):

TREATED - Food Daily Intake Reference Aug 16 Proof 1b

So, to provide some examples, this system might help consumers to idenitfy that:

  • A packet of biscuits with mostly red labels should only be eaten occasionally as a treat.
  • A tin of soup with amber labels could be enjoyed in moderation.
  • A box of muesli with mostly green labels would be a healthy option.

When were GDAs and RIs first used?

GDAs were first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1998, in a scheme jointly conceived by the government, the food industry and consumer organisations.

At first the labelling just specified the amount of calories, fat and saturated fat, but later GDAs for sugar, protein, salt, fibre, and carbohydrates were added.

After being introduced in some European countries, they became the industry standard on the continent in 2009. RIs were introduced after European legislation in 2014 to make the information easier to understand and consistent across the European union. GDAs are being phased out, and it is now rare to see them on food labelling.

Similar schemes have been rolled out in other territories; the Daily Intake Guide was launched in Australia in 2006, and food manufacturers in the United States have introduced the Facts Up Front system.

How do GDAs and RIs relate to managing our health?

The amounts specified in GDAs and RIs are not supposed to be a target, but a guide to what the maximum levels of constituents such as fat, sugar and salt you should have in your diet on a daily basis. Failure to follow guidance on healthy eating could contribute to weight gain and other numerous health problems: diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are all potentially serious conditions commonly linked to obesity and a poor diet.

It is also extremely important to keep active and take regular exercise alongside eating healthily; but if your weight problem is not being properly managed by a programme of diet and exercise and your health is at serious risk, some weight loss medication may be prescribed.

Have GDAs and RIs proved to be effective?

Whether or not GDAs and RIs are effective is still a subject of ongoing debate.

A 2008 study by the European Food Information Council found that 80% of participants were able to determine which products were healthier using the system. 

However, a flaw of the GDA and now the RI systems is that the guidance is only scientifically correct for averagely healthy, active people with no underlying health problems such as diabetes. Furthermore, now the RI only lists guideline amounts for female adults, it can be much harder to know what is healthy for children.

Whilst having nutritional information at our fingertips while shopping may have made it easier for us to manage our own diets more easily, there’s no indication it has halted our obesity epidemic. As of 2014, 25.6% of English adults were classed as obese, an increase of 10% on the previous 20 years.

At current rates, obesity is expected to affect 60% of adult men, half of adult women and a quarter of children by 2050.

Where can I get help if I'm trying to lose weight?

Help is available for those who are at risk of health issues related to being overweight, and are struggling to lose weight on their own. Your doctor may be able to help you assemble a controlled weight loss programme.

Take a look at our weight loss information pages to find out more about the treatments available.

Page last reviewed:  01/10/2020