Background Information: Nutrient Requirements in Human Nutrition

Knowledge of human energy and nutrient requirements is essential for the complete assessment of food supplies and nutritional needs, enabling governments to monitor nutrition programmes and plan development activities in general. In 1948, the FAO Standing Advisory Committee to the newly-formed Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considered that "the problem of assessing the calorie and nutrient requirements of human beings, with the greatest possible degree of accuracy, is of basic importance to FAO". Providing this crucial information has been an important part of FAO's work since its founding five decades ago.

The primary purpose of expert meetings on requirements has remained the same throughout FAO history: to advise the Directors-General on scientific issues related to energy and nutrient requirements so that appropriate recommendations for action can be formulated. The global scientific community has embraced the advice on requirements, and these "FAO/WHO recommendations" are utilized in virtually all countries. The FAO/WHO recommendations have not only reflected the state of knowledge at a particular point in time; they have influenced research agendas and methodologies over the years. The various groups have contributed a set of principles for determining and applying general requirements that have been adopted worldwide. For both FAO and WHO, the nutrition requirement reports rank among the most popular publications.

The first meeting of experts on requirements (energy) was held three years after FAO was founded. In the foreword of the report of this meeting, the first Director of the Nutrition Division, Dr. Wallace R. Aykroyd, observed that "even tentative recommendations would be of immediate practical value to FAO but also to its member countries." The recommendations would also be of value to "nutrition workers and others concerned with the problems of food requirements".

The first committee on calorie (energy) requirements made a number of points which are still pertinent today. Among the most important were:

  • Requirements were intended for Groups of persons rather than individuals, i.e., an average requirement can never be compared directly with an individual (requirement).
  • Judgement be exercised in interpreting and using requirement values.
  • It is essential to address the practical applications of the requirements, a task assigned to the Secretariat.

Under the auspices of FAO, scientific and technical recommendations are made by expert groups comprised of individuals who are appointed to serve in their personal capacity. The FAO Constitution states that expert groups, such as those dealing with nutrient requirements, can be established by the FAO Conference and Council or at times, at the discretion of the Director General. Over time the expert meetings on nutrient requirements have normally occurred once every biennium.

FAO also sponsors and publishes documents relating to the practical applications and uses of the requirements in the context of nutrition.

© FAO 2010