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NIST Standard Story: For Laboratory Use Only

NIST scientists have thoroughly measured and characterized more than 1,300 physical products, NIST Standard Reference Materials®, to help people in industry, academia, and government agencies calibrate instruments, verify their test methods, and develop new measurement methods. NIST reference materials, for example, help manufacturers make interoperable parts in far-flung facilities, medical labs check the accuracy of cholesterol and other clinical tests, and scientists monitor environmental threats.

We feature a different NIST reference material in each issue of Material Matters, the quarterly magazine of the Material Measurement Lab. (Click to subscribe.) This story appears in the Summer 2016 issue.


Standard Reference Material® 1849a, Infant/Adult Nutritional Formula


Each packet contains approximately 10 grams of a milk-based powder, a blend of material similar to the infant and adult versions of just-add-water nutritional powders you can buy in the grocery store. The material, provided by a manufacturer, is close to the consumer versions, but is "not an actual infant formula, because you don't want it to be confused with anything real," says Melissa Phillips, one of the NIST scientists who coordinated the analysis of this reference material. It's not so important that the material matches an actual consumer product, just that it's been assessed with NIST's usual rigor and is available for others to do the same.


Infant formula is "one of the most regulated foods in the world," according to Phillips, "with strict requirements for how much of each nutrient the powders should contain. When manufacturers report those nutrient values to regulators, they have to be within a narrow range, so manufacturers need accurate and precise analytical methods." Manufacturers seek guidance from AOAC International, which works with food manufacturers, among many other sectors, to set industry standards. While NIST is not a regulatory body, its scientists participate in AOAC standards committees alongside manufacturers to understand their needs. NIST then develops reference materials to help manufacturers comply with regulations both in the U.S. and in foreign markets, so that their products can be exported. Manufacturers like it when NIST provides reference materials and data because they can trust NIST's products are free of bias that might favor a competitor. This reference material continues work that NIST has done since the 1990s to support formula manufacturers.


NIST scientists collaborated with the Grocery Manufacturers Association to organize more than a dozen laboratories in a round robin, an interlaboratory comparison test where all the participants test the same material with the same methods and the results are compared. The data contributes to the calculation of values for each nutrient analyzed, and helps NIST understand what kind of values to expect from the typical industry test methods in daily use.


Manufacturers and testing labs use Standard Reference Material 1849a to validate their methods, or to confirm the composition of the in-house reference materials they make themselves for validating their analytical methods. The NIST reference material is also used when two manufacturers or other test labs don't agree on the values in a sample. To settle the dispute, they'll use Standard Reference Material 1849a and AOAC official methods to understand which method needs correcting. About 550 units of Standard Reference Material 1849a are sold each year.

Technical contacts: melissa.phillips [at] (Melissa Phillips) and laura.wood [at] (Laura Wood)

Released August 15, 2016, Updated January 29, 2021