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The United Nations University's International Food Data Systems Project (INFOODS) began as a comprehensive effort to improve and make available food composition data from and for all countries of the world. One of the first steps taken by INFOODS was to convene a workshop to identify and discuss the various purposes for which food composition data are needed and the ways in which they are currently being produced, maintained, and distributed. This volume contains the background papers prepared for that workshop and the results of the subsequent discussion on what needs to be done.

Data on the nutrient content of foods are critical in many areas - health assessment, the formulation of appropriate institutional and therapeutic diets, food and nutrition training, epidemiological research, etc. For many parts of the world, however, such data are lacking or inaccessible, incompatible, and incomplete. This volume offers a careful assessment of what is needed, the extent to which these needs are currently being met, and the essential long-term solutions to the existing problems. It also formulates the goal of the UNV-INFOODS project to ensure that eventually anyone around the globe will be able to obtain adequate and reliable food composition data.


The United Nations University was founded by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1975 to help solve the pressing global problems of human survival and welfare through the instruments of scholarship - research, training, and dissemination of knowledge. From the start, food and nutrition have been major areas of involvement, with the funding of research into human requirements, the advanced training of workers from developing countries in various fields of nutrition and food science, and the sponsoring of workshops and symposia on a range of related subjects.

It was realized early that good, readily available data on the composition of foods consumed by man were essential for all of these activities, as well as for many others in the international world of trade, research, and assistance. The amount, quality, and availability of these data vary between and within countries and regions. Moreover, for no area is there a body of data that users feel is totally adequate for their needs - in that accurate, accessible data simply do not exist for most of the foods of the world. In early 1983 the United Nations University organized a small gathering of international experts in Bellagio, Italy, to assess the status and problems of food composition data, explore what could be done, and plan its execution. This meeting, attended by representatives of international agencies and scientific unions, government agencies, and individuals from the academic community, was sponsored by the United States government, the food industry, and private foundations. The group recommended the formation of INFOODS (the International Network of Food Data Systems) to stimulate and co-ordinate efforts to improve the status of food composition data around the world. Work got formally under way in the summer of 1984 with the establishment of a secretariat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, funded primarily by the United States government (NCI, NHLBI, USDA, and FDA), but with additional funding from industry and private foundations, and administrative assistance from the United Nations University.

One of the first activities that INFOODS felt necessary was a careful assessment of the needs of the food composition data user community, of whether these needs were or were not being satisfied by the present data systems and what the users saw as solutions to their problems. To effect this, INFOODS designed a conference on Users and Needs of Food Composition Data to bring together a number of individuals involved with different aspects of food composition data; it was planned as a collaboration between the INFOODS secretariat and Utah State University, with the major responsibility for organization being assumed by Professor Gaurth Hansen and his associates, Professors Carol Windham and Bonita Wyse of Utah State University. The conference took place from 26 to 29 March 1985 on the campus of Utah State University in Logan, Utah, and the major goal was to discuss and document the current situation and thinking about food composition data systems. As this document attests, the conference was very successful, both in defining the needs of the user community and in indicating how INFOODS should try to satisfy them. Although INFOODS' ultimate goal of making food composition data complete, accurate, and available is still a long way off, this conference has made an auspicious start.

Nevin S. Scrimshaw,
Development Studies Division,
United Nations University


INFOODS is a collaboration of individuals and organizations interested in food composition data. It is co-ordinated by a secretariat based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, internationally supported by the United Nations University, and funded primarily by the United States agencies of the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture. Thanks are given to all these agencies for their assistance in holding this meeting.

Additional thanks are due to Professor Gaurth Hansen and his colleagues, Professors Carol Windham and Bonita Wyse, and their staffs at Utah State University for their efforts in the organization and arrangements, and in making the conference enjoyable as well as productive.

This report details the ideas, discussions, and recommendations of a very diverse group of individuals, drawn from quite different disciplines and situations. Since the meeting, the secretariat of INFOODS has been using the results of these discussions to organize its priorities, and to help start new activities. An indication of the importance of this meeting is that steps have been taken to implement each of their recommendations. Thus, the INFOODS secretariat, and indeed the community, owe special thanks to the participants, who gave of their time and ideas to meet and help chart the course of INFOODS.

William M. Rand,
Executive Secretary,

Executive summary

Food Composition Data Are Important

Food is a major component of man's environment. Data on what is actually in foods are critical to important activities of a great variety of individuals and groups including those involved with epidemiological research into disease patterns, government regulation formulation and enforcement, health assessment of individuals and populations, and national and international trade in foods.

Food Composition Data Are Currently Inadequate and Getting Worse

Current activities involved with the gathering and compiling of food composition data are for the most part isolated and often produce inaccessible, incompatible, inconsistent, and redundant information. Additionally, there are large gaps in the available data on what is in foods; data on many biologically important components of many commonly consumed foods simply do not exist. Moreover, very little information exists on the variability of food components and the attendant problems are almost totally neglected by data compilers and users.

Most food data bases are compiled for specific usages and often are unsuitable for other purposes. Thus, many of the data that do exist are difficult to find and use because of the limiting ways in which they are gathered, stored, and described. Interest in food components is expanding rapidly, as are the varieties of foods that are available and consumed. The need for access to more data on more foods is far outstripping the amount of data that are being made available.

There Is a Need for Co-ordinated Activity in the Field

The importance of food composition data and the relatively limited resources that are available necessitate a co-ordination of activity in the area. It is recommended that INFOODS pursue this goal by:

1. Serving as a focal point as it strives to set up a network of global communication between workers in the field.

2. Formulating guidelines for the various aspects of gathering, compiling, communicating, and using food composition data. This, of necessity, will include guidelines for methodologies for data gathering, data description, data storage and retrieval, data interchange, and data manipulation.

3. Pursuing the appropriate involvement of modern computer and information systems technology within the field of food composition data. Any such involvement must recognize that flexibility is a key element and that work in this area must be primarily directed towards providing the users with better tools.

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