Up until the 20th century, we had no established way of knowing the amount of calcium, iron, or potassium in the foods we eat every day—and therefore, no way of connecting the dots between our diet and maintaining good health. And the lack of standardized guidelines came with dire consequences. Case in point: Between the 16 and 18th centuries, millions of sailors succumbed to scurvy, a deadly nutritional disease easily prevented by adequate intake of vitamin C, found in citrus fruits and many leafy vegetables.
By the mid-1900s, the U.S. government had begun to lay the foundation for dietary reference intakes, or DRIs, the foundation for the “Nutrition Facts” labels you see printed on packaged-food bags and boxes. But before DRIs could be widely adopted as the national guide for good nutrition, they would be subjected to decades of scientific scrutiny involving multiple government agencies. Here’s a look at six surprising facts that impacted the evolution of DRIs.
1. FDR laid the groundwork. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to construct a plan to deal with the problem of malnourished and starving populations in the U.S. as a result of World War II. Roosevelt’s first task for the 41-member committee was to quantify how much of each nutrient Americans needed to maintain good health.
2. 50 nutrition experts helped draft the first recommendations. In 1941, the NDRC in conjunction with the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) published dietary recommendations for protein, energy, and eight vitamins and minerals they determined to be most important, including iron, thiamin, and vitamin D. To make that happen, 50 leading nutrition experts reviewed all available studies and from that, drafted the first report of Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs).
3. Health problems triggered an expansion of RDAs. By the late 1980s, it became apparent that the RDAS, now nearly 300 pages and covering two dozen food components, needed to address nutrition-related health issues. To meet that expectation, a panel of scientists was formed to determine appropriate intakes and evaluate the risks of overconsumption of certain vitamins and minerals, with a focus on preventing serious health issues. This expansion of RDAs gave way to the first DRIs in the mid-1990s.
4. The first DRIs influenced government, military, and corporations. DRIs not only helped determine the labels on packaged foods you eat, they also served as a for government food assistance programs and military nutrition, and for food corporations, helped inform new or modified products and food-safety assurance.
5. The FDA recently changed Nutrition Facts labels. To help consumers make more informed food choices, on May 20, 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods to reflect the latest science, and noting “added sugars,” updated serving sizes, and larger type for calorie counts. The changes were based on updated scientific information, new nutrition and public health research, more recent dietary recommendations from expert groups, and input from the public.
6. DRIs are evaluated every five to 10 years. To stay on top of the constant changes in nutrition-focused research, the FNB reevaluates its guidelines every five to 10 years based on the latest evidence. The FNB in conjunction with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is currently reviewing DRIs for sodium and potassium, and will release its updated report in early 2018.
While DRIs are essential to public health and contribute to our understanding of a healthy diet, they don’t always offer a complete picture of the current science on a given nutrient. For example, DRIs for vitamin B3 focus on niacin, but there are other forms of B3 that may be beneficial, including nicotinamide riboside, which has been shown to be a more efficient precursor of the coenzyme NAD+. You may have read headlines about NAD+, but if you’re not exactly sure what it is, here are four facts to know about the essential molecule that scientists are referring to as “the golden nucleotide.”
1) NAD+ is essential for human life. Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide is a coenzyme in all of our cells. Coenzymes are also known as “helper molecules” because proteins depend on them to perform hundreds of critically-important biological processes in the human body, from DNA and stem cell health to maintaining circadian rhythm (our sleep and wake cycle, and everything it entails and creating energy. Think of yourself as a car, then NAD+ is the fuel or battery needed to get you from point A to point B. But it declines steadily with age, and those processes start to break down.
2) NAD+ is not new. In 1906, two biochemists—Arthur Harden and William John Young—discovered that NAD+ was essential for boosting fermentation in yeast. Then in 1929 Harden and and colleague Hans von Euler-Chelpin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry after determining that fermentation was made possible by the presence of the coenzyme “cozymase,” known today as NAD+.
3) Decades of research suggests a strong link between NAD+ and better health. In a research project that began more than 25 years ago, Dr. Leonard Guarente, head of the Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at MIT, and his colleague Dr. Shin-ichiro Imai discovered that a family of proteins that control longevity called sirtuins only function in the presence of NAD+. This meant changes in NAD+ levels could make or break vital functions in the body. These discoveries laid the groundwork for theories connecting increased NAD+ levels to long-term health, and is now the subject of many preclinical and clinical trials.
4) The science around NAD+ is thriving. The coenzyme is the subject of too many studies to name and and new research emerges every month—some of it by top academic institutions including Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. Studies on NAD+ in mice suggest a wide range of health benefits, including muscle function, brain health, and metabolic health.
Scientists now want to understand whether they can achieve similar results in humans through NAD+ supplementation. In November 2017, the results of Elysium Health’s randomized, double-blind clinical trial was published in leading aging journal Nature Partner Journals: Aging and Mechanisms of Disease. The study demonstrated in healthy adults that a daily dose of NRPT (a combination of nicotinamide riboside, an NAD+ precursor vitamin found in milk, and pterostilbene, a polyphenol found in blueberries), commercially known as Basis, increased NAD+ levels by an average of 40 percent over four weeks. The increase was sustained at eight weeks