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Use of food composition data by governments

John E. Vanderveen and Jean A.T. Pennington
Division of Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, Washington, D. C., USA

In recent years governments throughout the world have made dramatic increases in the use of food composition data bases. The increased awareness of the role of nutrients and other substances in foods on the health and quality of life has stimulated action programmes that require every level of government, consumer organizations, and even some individual consumers to rely on information from food composition data bases. Originally, before the advent of computers, such data bases were in hard copy form. Perhaps the best known of these has been the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Handbook No. 8 (1, 2). However, many other food composition handbooks have been developed through the years (3-30).

Today more than 30 countries have national food composition tables. With the arrival of the computer age it was only natural that such data bases be established for use with a computer. Although it would be difficult to estimate the use of such data systems in terms of manhours, computer time, or any other measurement, the fact is that in the United States alone more than 50 major computer data bases are in existence (31-34). This is evidence that such use of food composition data has become important to our lifestyle. The development of a comprehensive list of the multitude of uses of these data bases by governments is also an impossible task. Consequently, this paper will describe only a limited number of uses for which governments employ food composition data bases at the present time.

Planning and Evaluating Menus

The most traditional use of food composition data bases is for planning and evaluating menus. Dietitians have, for more than 70 years, used food composition data to plan and evaluate diets for patients (35, 36). As our food systems became more complex, dietitians applied nutrient composition data bases to the planning of menus for institutional food service as well (37). The key to planning diets that provided adequate nutrition, and at the same time minimized cost, was to calculate the amount of nutrients in alternative acceptable menu combinations and compare cost. This remains a major function in the use of data bases within government institution feeding programmes today. Perhaps the largest programme of this type is that used by military food system planners. In the United States, the Armed Forces Menu Board prepares a series of menus each month that contain certain minimum levels of nutrients as prescribed by regulation (38, 39). Similar procedures are used by many federal, state, and local agencies to plan food service operations in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and other institutional settings.

A similar menu planning type activity is accomplished by the USDA in planning for allowances in government-supported food assistance programmes. In this activity the emphasis is on estimating the cost of providing food to specific segments of the population in need of assistance. Typical diet plans (thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal) are developed that provide adequate levels of essential nutrients and calories, and then cost estimates are made based on prevailing market prices (40).

Nutritional Adequacy of Diets

Nutritionists and dietitians have long used food consumption data (generally 24-hour recall or diary data) to evaluate the nutritional adequacy of diets consumed by individuals. The levels of nutrients consumed are estimated by using food consumption and composition data. In general, for the first half of this century, this practice was limited to the diets of medical patients. However, in recent years such evaluations have become routine as part of the practice of preventive medicine.

Assessment of the nutritional adequacy of the diets of population groups has also become an integral part of the evaluation of data collected from food consumption surveys conducted on a state, regional, or national basis. Large-scale dietary status surveys conducted in the United States include the Ten State Nutrition Survey, 1968-1970 (41), the USDA 1965 Household Food Consumption Survey (42-44), and the USDA 1977-78 Nationwide Food Consumption Survey (4346). The NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) I (47-52) and the NHANES II (53-56), conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, include assessment of both dietary and nutritional status of the United States population.

The appropriateness of methodologies used for dietary evaluations has been frequently questioned by qualified nutritionists, and the data derived from these evaluations should only be used with caution (57). Nevertheless, estimates of nutrient intakes derived from short-term food consumption studies are frequently the only data that public health officials have for assessing probable dietary status of population groups.

Diet and Disease Relationships

Epidemiological research on the relationships between diet and long-term degenerative diseases requires the use of accurate food composition data. A number of studies have been conducted throughout the world with the objective of linking cardiovascular disease with diet. Both retrospective and prospective studies have utilized basically the same technique (58-60). Food consumption patterns were obtained from individuals through the use of dietary recall or food diaries. Estimates of various dietary components were then derived by applying appropriate food composition data to these food consumption data. Estimates of nutrient or substance intake were then correlated with the incidence of various biochemical and physiological measurements indicative of cardiovascular disease. Similar studies have been completed for other diseases, such as diverticulitis, diabetes, renal disease, and cancer (61).

Hypotheses drawn form such epidemiological studies are then frequently tested through dietary intervention studies (60, 62). Again, food composition data are utilized to create diets that will provide a basis for testing the hypothesis. Many times the hypothesis cannot be conveniently tested in an intervention study. In these cases the hypothesis is simply made available to the public for its own discretionary action. Data on food composition will be necessary for the consumer to implement such discretionary action.

Regulatory Policies

The use of estimates of nutrient intakes for individuals and/or population segments together with nutritional status measurements for these individuals and/or population segments provides vital information for food regulation and maintenance of the nutritional quality of the food supply. These data are obviously more reliable than dietary data alone in assessing the adequacy of nutrients consumed in the diets and specific foods consumed by individuals and target populations. Dietary and nutritional status data provide the basis for establishing food fortification policy, and policy for school lunch and other action programmes. Furthermore, long-term dietary and nutritional status data are used to evaluate the effectiveness of action programmes such as food fortification and food assistance programmes (63, 64).

Standards of Identity

The use of food composition data is also vital in establishing standards of identity for traditional foods. Many foods in the marketplace today are marketed according to a standard of identity that protects both the consumer and the product manufacturer. With modern food technology, many traditional foods can now be made with different ingredients and still have the same organoleptic and functional qualities, but may have significantly different nutritional composition. Consequently, consumer expectations relative to nutritional value may not be fulfilled. Thus, the "traditional composition" must be established before standards of identity can be proposed. This requires the acquisition of broad compositional data on the product as produced in a variety of locations, environmental conditions, and time periods.

A good example of the importance of compositional data in establishing a food standard is the ice cream standard of identity in the United States. Through the years the composition of ice cream has changed with new technology, availability of ingredients, and consumer preference. However, the nutrient composition remained relatively constant. In the early 1970s, it became possible to fabricate ice cream with new dairy-derived ingredients that would retain organoleptic and physical properties, but alter significantly the nutrient composition. The potential for debasement of the nutritional value of ice cream marketed in the United States became a major factor in retaining the existing standard of identity without change. Many other examples can be found in which food composition data had an impact on the proposed standard of identity of a food. These include other dairy products such as cheeses and fluid milks, and cereal products such as enriched bread and enriched flour.

Imitation and Substitute Foods

Composition data on foods are also important in other rule-making procedures. In the United States, foods that simulate other foods (original foods) for which a standard of identity or other recognized standard exists, may be called substitute foods provided that the food simulating the standardized food contains equivalent or greater amounts of each nutrient found in measurable amounts in the standardized food. The requirement does not include calories. The term "measurable amount" is defined by regulation to be 2 per cent of the US RDA This requirement for a substitute food is referred to as "nutritional equivalency." All foods that simulate foods for which a standard exists but do not meet the nutritional equivalency criterion must be called "imitation." The term "imitation" implies that the product is inferior to the original food, whereas the term "substitute food" implies equivalency. The nutrient content of the original food being simulated is derived from values existing in recognized food composition data bases. If incomplete data exist, or if some values in recognized data bases are considered questionable, then the manufacturer must establish a suitable data base for the food. The manufacturer must also create a data base for the substitute food to demonstrate its nutrient composition.

Labelling Claims

Another major use of food nutrient composition data is associated with establishing the legitimacy claims made for foods in labelling or advertisements. In the United States, truthful claims are permitted both in food labelling and in advertisement, provided such claims are judged to be of significance. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that food labelling must be accurate and not misleading. Therefore, claims for significance or claims for superiority must meet established criteria.

A food that is claimed to contain a significant amount of a nutrient must contain an amount at least equal to 10 per cent of the US RDA for that nutrient. Similarly, a food claimed to be superior to another food in regard to a specific nutrient must have an amount greater than 10 per cent more of that nutrient than in the product being compared. A similar requirement exists for claims of lesser amount of substances such as sodium, fat, or calories. In all cases where claims are made, United States regulations require full nutrition labelling of the product. The values used for such claims must be derived from a suitable data base. The manufacturer may use data from recognized nutrient data bases for the food to which he or she is comparing his or her product. The manufacturer is expected to establish a suitable data base for the product for which a claim is being made. The staff or regulatory agencies rely on established food composition data bases to assess the accuracy and legitimacy of such claims.

Advertising Claims

Other claims for foods relative to usefulness in the dietary management of diseases or other conditions are not generally permitted on labelling of food products in the United States. However, claims of usefulness of products for diseases or conditions are frequently made in advertisements. For example, a product may be promoted as having a particular amino acid composition that is helpful in the management of a particular disease or condition. Agencies that monitor such advertisements frequently use nutrient composition data from suitable data bases to assess the accuracy and truthfulness of such claims.

Nutrition Labelling

Nutrient composition data bases have been used in the United States for nearly a decade for the nutrition labelling of food commodities and processed foods to which no nutrients have been added. The policy for use of such data bases has been carefully articulated by the agency so as to permit use of data base information where the data are judged to be accurate and not misleading to consumers. Today, data bases have been established for a variety of commodities and processed foods to which no nutrients have been added. These include fresh milk, raw potatoes, nuts, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and some canned and frozen fruits and vegetables where processing involved only thermostabilization, dehydration, refrigeration, or freezing. In time, most raw and processed foods for which processing is limited to preservation measures will likely be nutritionally labelled using data from recognized data bases.

The use of data base information to calculate nutrient values for fabricated foods, foods prepared from commodities or ingredients, or foods to which nutrients have been added, is not currently recognized as adequate. Loss of heat-labile nutrients and loss of mineral elements through various processing techniques are, in most cases, too difficult to predict. However, should adequate technology be developed to make such predictions possible, it is likely that use of such data will be permitted.

Food Additives

Data on both direct and indirect food additives have been less available than nutrient data, and hence food additive data bases have been less developed than nutrient data bases. However, with increasing interest in all substances contained in foods, the government, industry, and other institutions have been creating data bases on a variety of substances. Some indirect food additives, which are frequently called contaminants, have received most of the attention to date. Concern about heavy metals, especially lead, mercury, and cadmium, has resulted in significant accumulation of food composition data on these elements by various government agencies in many countries. Models for making consumption estimates of such substances have been devised 165, 66). Consumption estimates currently exist for lead, mercury, and cadmium for various age and sex groups, and further breakdown of these estimates characterizes 50th, 60th, 70th, 80th, and 90th percentile levels of consumption.

Information on direct food additives is frequently difficult to obtain. There is concern on the part of manufacturers in general about releasing data on the use of food additives in the industrial community. There are several reasons for these concerns, but two are more frequently cited. The first is that competitors will gain vital information about formulations. The second is that regulatory agencies will in some way use the information to further control the use of food additives. Although both of these concerns may have some basis, it is not likely that either is a significant issue today. Analytical techniques currently available permit even the most complex formulations to be analyzed if the need warrants the cost.

To facilitate a review of the use of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substances in the United States, manufacturers agreed to permit the National Academy of Sciences to have access to "use" data. Estimates were then calculated for a series of food groupings representing foods that are commonly consumed by individuals. These data have been available for use by regulatory agencies in assessing risk.

Research in Agriculture and Food Technology

Food composition data bases serve as the reference point from which food scientists and food technologists investigate the effects of new production and processing techniques on the nutrient content of food materials. Emerging technologies such as genetic engineering, aquaculture, microbial biomass, gamma ray irradiation, chemical sterilization, retortable aluminum pouches and trays, and low-density polyethylene packages (67) will surely alter the nutrient content of traditional and non-traditional foodstuffs. Publications on the effects of various food production and processing methods on nutrient composition are abundant. Only a few are cited here (68-73). Food composition data bases need to be expanded to include multiple listing for food items that have had nutrient content altered by genetic engineering or by various processing techniques.

Change in the Food Supply

Food composition data bases are dynamic and reflect the status of an ever-changing food supply. There has been a dramatic increase in the last decade in the availability of convenience foods (such as frozen entrees, microwave dinners, and dessert items), fast foods, food analogues, and imported foods. Not only are new foods created that gain a share of the total food supply, while others recede to a lesser prominence, but other changes occur slowly and in subtle ways as well. New cultivars of fruits, vegetables, and grains are constantly replacing older varieties. Animal-derived products change, too, not only with the introduction of new breeds, but by the way animals are fed, how they are managed, and their exposure to substances in the environment.

Some examples of such changes can be found for major food commodities in the United States food supply. The varieties of tomatoes grown in the United States today are different from those available when the first USDA Handbook No. 8 was prepared. Similarly, the predominating varieties of potatoes have changed, causing changes in nutrient composition. Animal-derived commodities have also changed. Cuts of meat are generally leaner and milk has less fat. Mineral content has changed as well. For example, the iodine content of milk today is nearly 10 times the level found 30 years ago (74). This increase is due to the high levels of iodine compounds that are fed to animals and to the use of iodine compounds used to clean milking utensils.

Processed foods are changing in composition as well. Manufacturers are sensitive to consumer concerns about the safety of food and attempt to meet these demands. Currently, many manufacturers are trying to reduce the sodium content of their products and in doing so may raise the level of other elements such as potassium and calcium. Some food products lower in calories, fat, and cholesterol are also becoming more available.

Food composition data, when collected routinely over long time periods, provide a means of tracking and assessing various changes in the food supply. One such programme, FDA's yearly Total Diet Study (75-79), is designed to track levels of essential elements and some contaminants in foods and total diets. This programme provides an on-going dynamic data base for these substances, and allows the FDA to monitor the levels of these substances and to determine the effects of agricultural practices, manufacturing practices, fortification policy, and food additive policy on substance intake.

To be effective tools in the support of government nutrition-related public health initiatives, food composition data base systems must be flexible and current. These data base systems require continuous updating and revision to keep pace with newer analytical techniques, with professional interest in a greater number of nutrients/contaminants/substances, and with the introduction and disappearance of food products from the market-place. In addition, to maximize future potential use of food composition data bases, it will be necessary to standardize coding systems, food descriptions, and other factors so that data base systems may become more compatible and able to be used interchangeably.


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