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Nutrition Informatics Blog

Nutrient Databases: What's App?

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Nutrient Databases: What’s App?

Elaine Ayres, MS, RD

I was cleaning out a bookshelf the other day and ran across a large dog-eared book entitled U.S. Department of Agriculture Handbook No. 8, Composition of Foods: Raw, Processed, Prepared. Before computers, dietitians looked up each food item, jotted down all of the nutrient values, and then added everything up.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has compiled data on the nutrients in food for more than 115 years, and luckily, since 1980, these nutrient files were put in an electronic database, downloadable from the USDA Web site. In addition to the USDA data, a number of unique nutrient data sets were created to capture food composition based on a region or country, specific nutrients, or to support nutritional assessment, food manufacturers’ labels, or research. TheInternational Nutrient Databank Directory is a great searchable summary of some of the nutrient composition databases available in the marketplace. Many nutrient databases are proprietary.

While each nutrient data set may serve a specific community, creating a universal standard for food composition is the goal of the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS). Part of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, INFOODS strives to “improve the quality and worldwide availability of food analysis data and to ensure that anyone anywhere would be able to obtain adequate and reliable food composition data.” The harmonization of nutrient data is a difficult task because these data are used in a variety of settings, including personal food logs, recipe analyses, food labels, and commercial settings such as restaurants. 

Now, with the advent of the computer or a smartphone app, nutritional analysis based on these data is available at your fingertips. However, have you ever thought of what nutrient database is supplying the data for the app? How recent is the information, and is it actual data from food analysis or derived by adding up the ingredients in a recipe? Is it from a food label database based on an analysis of a manufacturer’s product or estimated based on ingredients that may change over time? While a few calories here or there might not make a big difference, an online database and nice user interface can make inaccurate or outdated information look plausible and professional.

The FAO has published guidelines on the use of food composition databases. Nutrient databases were designed for use by food and nutrition professionals, and now these data are served up to consumers through a proliferation of online and mobile applications. As a professional, I believe that we all have the responsibility of ensuring the accuracy of data and the appropriate use of nutrient data.

The next time you use a nutrition app, take a look at the source of the nutrient data and make sure it is consistent with the guidelines published by FAO. I threw out my old Handbook 8,but I still am looking for an app that cleans my house.

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