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Report and recommendations of the conference

The users and their needs
Food composition data
A food composition data system

INFOODS was organized after a meeting of experts concerned with the unsatisfactory state of food composition data at the international level [9]. It was formed in response to a perceived sense that there were major problems in the area of food composition data, and therefore one of its first tasks was to determine the status of food composition data, and to decide which users' needs were not being met and what should and could be done. Thus, INFOODS helped organize a meeting involving a number of individuals directly concerned with food composition data. This was held on the campus of Utah State University in late March 1985, with the major goals being to define and document the current situation, and to make proposals for the future. (See the appendix for a list of the participants.) The format of the meeting included presentation of papers followed by discussion by the full group; small writing groups then prepared the material on which this report was based. After the meeting the authors were given the opportunity to revise their papers, and these papers follow this report of the conference. The report itself is divided into sections that introduce the papers (section 1), discuss the users themselves and their needs (section 2), examine the data that are available (section 3), explore the design of an ideal food composition data system (section 4), and finally make recommendations to INFOODS for future activities (section 5).


The papers presented can be divided into five general areas. The first three papers, each by a member of the INFOODS staff, deal with the background and general context of the meeting. Vernon Young (paper 1) discusses the forces that led to the formation of INFOODS, arguing that it is now time for the field of food composition data to be drawn together and, particularly, to consider agreed-upon, unified, and standardized approaches to its problems. These problems arise from a chaotic situation wherein everyone seems to be working independently. Much of the food composition data that exist are incomplete, incompatible, and inconsistent. William Rand (paper 2) presents some general ideas of food composition data as data, with emphasis on its variability and its inherent incompleteness for solving specific problems. This paper points out some of the consequences of the current situation of incompatibility and inconsistency between data bases, with special attention to the lack of confidence in the whole field of food composition data. John Klensin (paper 3) presents the role of INFOODS as a "broker" of food composition data, helping to increase the accessibility and interchange of data, and co-ordinating the development of guidelines. A major point made by this paper is that the users should define the systems they need, and that computers should be viewed as tools to assist the user rather than as constraints.

The second group of papers is concerned with specific uses of food composition data. Ann Sorenson of the US Department of Health and Human Services and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh (paper 4) report on a number of international epidemiological research programmes, the problems they have with existing food composition data, and the implications for how food composition data should be organized and managed. Lenore Arab of the University of Heidelberg (paper 5) discusses her experience working in the area of nutritional epidemiology in Europe, focusing on practical problems and potential solutions that range from the difficulties of determining dietary intake to those of dealing with data from several different food tables, each with its own conventions. Ritva Butrum of the US National Cancer Institute (paper 6) presents many of the Institute's programmes, both within the United States and internationally, which require food composition data, and the problems that these programmes face without globally complete, consistent, and compatible data. Betty Peterkin, of the US Department of Agriculture (paper 7), shows how the data that USDA collects are used to satisfy various programmes in research, information, education, regulation, and food assistance, with special attention given to the assessment of the quality of the US diet and preparation of dietary guidelines. This paper lists differing aspects of food composition data which individual users require: sets of nutrients, various stages of processing or preparation, levels of statistical analyses, degrees of precision and accuracy, units of measure, and different formats. Carol Windham and her colleagues at Utah State University (paper 8) discuss the needs that university research in the areas of nutrition guidance and nutrition education place on food composition data. The paper also describes the components of and problems with the system that Utah State University and the Human Nutrition Information Center of USDA developed to fulfil these needs. The need for more and better data, and the importance of documentation to characterize the data, are stressed. Fred Steinke of the Ralston Purina Company (paper 9) discusses the uses that food companies make of food composition data, surveys the data that are currently being used, and maintains that safety and acceptability by the consumer are the primary concerns of the food industry.

The third group of papers is authored by developers, managers, and users of large food composition data bases. Loretta Hoover of the University of Missouri-Columbia (paper 10) discusses the general status of nutrition data bases within the United States in the context of the requirements and problems that the user faces in dealing with these systems. She introduces the concept of two tiers of users: those experienced users who are primarily interested in issues of accessibility, installation, updating, availability, and computational concerns as well as being aware of the problems of accuracy and applicability of different software and data bases; and those inexperienced users who are primarily interested in utility, compatibility, and cost. Any efforts to improve the status of food composition data need to be directed primarily toward the first tier of users; however, the results of improvement will shortly effect those in the second tier. Frank Hepburn of USDA (paper 11) describes the management of the USDA data base, illustrating how the data has evolved in response to a changing food supply and the more sophisticated needs of users. Marilyn Buzzard and Diane Feskanich of the Nutrition Co-ordinating Center at the University of Minnesota (paper 12) describe their system and the procedures that they have initiated to satisfy user needs. The specific needs stressed include: standardized methods of obtaining data; up-to-date and complete nutrient profiles; adequate documentation of data sources; quality control for the data base itself; and stability, comparability, and flexibility. Grace Petot of Case Western Reserve University (paper 13) discusses the management of a large academic system, cataloguing user needs and expectations.

The fourth group of papers is concerned with food composition data outside the United States. Hernando Flores of the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil (paper 14) illustrates the very real problems which arise from using the outdated INCAP tables to estimate consumption of important nutrients. Aree Valyasevi of Mahidol University, Thailand (paper 15) describes the status of food composition data in Asia, and reports on progress in the establishment of ASIAFOODS. Ake Bruce and Lena Bergstrom (paper 16) catalogue the data bases within Sweden and other Nordic countries, showing the profusion of data bases that can exist in a relatively homogeneous part of the world. Pamela Verdier of Health and Welfare Canada (paper 17) describes the national data base of Canada, how it was put together and managed, and how it is integrated into the nutritional activities of Canada.

The fifth and last group of papers discusses food composition data from several points of view slightly removed from the field. Joanne Holden and her colleagues at the Beltsville Nutrient Composition Laboratory of USDA (paper 18) discuss the problems of maintaining the quality of the data in data bases and of assessing and communicating that quality. This paper presents a specific system for evaluating published data on selenium, and discusses the aspects such a system must consider. George Beaton of the University of Toronto (paper 19) examines the effect of uncertainty in food composition on the estimation of nutrient intake from food consumption surveys, concluding that this variability is often less important than previously assumed. Reliability of food composition data is most important in those foods that make the greatest contribution to total nutrient intake, and the effect of improving reliability will be most evident when examining diets which include few foods. This paper also notes that these considerations focus on variability and that the presence of bias in the data is often an important source of error. Catherine Woteki of the US National Center for Health Statistics (paper 20) discusses in detail the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which are a major user of the USDA data base. John Klensin of INFOODS (paper 21) examines food composition data bases from the point of view of modern information systems theory and practice, showing that the field has changed considerably since most data bases were first implemented.

The users and their needs

The Users of Food Composition Data

Data on the composition of foods are used by a wide selection of individuals and organizations, ranging from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which calculates food balance sheets for countries around the world and advises them on the global allocation of foods and other resources, to individual shoppers reading labels in the supermarket in an attempt to plan the nutritional value of their next meal. The following list of examples illustrates the range and variety of users (see also the extended list in paper 13).

International Users (e.g. paper 15)

International agencies dealing with food aid are responsible for acquiring large quantities of food and transporting it to different locations in the world, often to meet the specific nutritional needs of populations. Here there is a strong need to know the constituents of the foodstuffs available around the world and, at the same time, the relevant nutrient situation within each country, in order to match the food supply to human physiological needs.

Governments need to know the composition of the foods that are imported in order to plan for satisfying the nutritional requirements of their populations and to protect these populations from contaminant and toxicologically active constituents.

Food industries that compete on the international market need to know the components of the local food with which they are competing, and also the nutrient content of potential ingredients for their products - ingredients which may come from widely separated parts of the world.

Epidemiologists have long realized that food is one of the most important components of an individual's environment. Studies of global disease patterns must be accompanied by data on global food and nutrient consumption patterns (see papers 4, 5, and 6).

National Users (e.g. papers 16 and 17)

National governments regulate what is produced within the country as well as what is imported in order to protect and guarantee the health of their populations [13]. Their activities include the setting of regulations and the monitoring of adherence to those regulations. They must also assess the nutritional status of their populations (papers 7 and 20); one important aspect of this is to determine what is being consumed and how this compares with established dietary requirements and allowances. All of these activities require the availability of reliable and extensive data on the composition of foods.

National programmes of feeding, such as in schools or in the military, require up-todate information on the nutrient content of foods so that nutritionally adequate diets can be formulated.

University teachers and researchers require reliable and current food tables for a broad spectrum of activities that involve the relationship between health and disease and what people consume [2,14] (papers 8 and 14).

Local Users

Below the national level, there are many activities concerned with the preparation and recommendation of healthy diets, in institutions such as hospitals and factories as well as in special segments of society such as the elderly.

Food industries regulate the quality of their foods by routinely analysing the components of their products, using available food tables. New formulations must adhere to nutritional and safety standards and food tables are used initially to select preparations for investigation (paper 9).

Individual Users

The diet and nutrition clinics which continue to increase in number in technically developed regions rely heavily on food tables for individual counselling. These clinics complement the activities of individual dietitians and physicians dealing with patients ranging from those with metabolic disorders to those who are over- and underweight.

Finally, the most extensive use of food composition data by the individual is, of course, the individual shopper scanning the ingredients list, nutrient contents, and percentages of requirements fulfilled on the labels of packaged foods.

Some Generalizations about Users

The extent and diversity of the users of food composition data are underlying problems of the field. These various users' groups not only make very different uses of the data, but also have different expectations and requirements. Thus it is important to identify the common threads that would permit the organization of users into groups who have similar needs and make similar demands on any food composition data system:

- System requirements are quite different for the user concerned with a limited set of foods that can be fairly well defined, such as those in a restricted geographic region or those suitable for a very specific diet, and for the user concerned with extensive, perhaps open-ended, sets of foods, with often a global distribution. The former group of users is usually able to define its needs and knows the questions it will ask of a data base, which can thus be embedded in a fairly rigid system, while the latter requires much more flexibility in its interactions with the data.

- The degree of precision or specific level of detail required divides users into a spectrum of groups, with some needing accurate data, some only approximate data or ranges, and others only an indication as to the presence or absence of components. - Many users need to know the constituents of specific foods (e.g. diet evaluation) while others are interested in the foods that contain certain components (recipe or menu development). This distinction divides the users into two groups with quite different search and retrieval requirements.

- The distinction between whether the user is interested in a specific individual, for example for diet or menu planning, or in a group of individuals, for example to determine the nutritional intake of the population of a region, is essential in order to design a system to properly estimate various statistical quantities, such as confidence regions.

- Some users need only representative values for specific nutrients in specific foods. Others are interested in the extremes that a nutrient can attain (at a certain probability level), while others want to know how certain nutrients (and foods) correlate with one another. Each of these classes of users asks different questions, requires different amounts and types of data, and needs systems for usage which are superficially quite different.

The Needs of Food Composition Users

The basic needs of the users are: (a) high-quality data on foods and components, (b) ancillary data, and (c) facility of access and manipulation of these data to give the information desired.

High-quality Data

The most obvious need of the users is for data that represents the foods and components with which they are concerned. These data must be as precise as the particular usage requires, unambiguously identified, and easily accessible (see section 3 below).

Ancillary Data

For most users, the amount of a specific nutrient in a given specific food is not sufficient for their task (paper 2). Necessary ancillary data range from usual serving sizes to household consumption and individual nutrient requirements. The following list includes some of the major types of additional information that often may be needed:

- data describing the food composition data - where they came from, their quality, etc.;
- descriptions of representative serving portions, including weight/portion equivalents;
- brand names and identifications; recipes and ingredient lists;
- effects of processing and preparation; fortification rules;
- food/nutrient interactions; food/drug interactions;
- bioavailability;
- contaminants, toxicants, and allergenic compounds; dietary standards and nutrient requirements;
- food production and consumption; geographic distribution of disease.

Data Management

The mere existence of food composition and associated data is not sufficient for carrying out the tasks of most users. These data need to be acquired, merged, and manipulated in order to be turned into information. Thus the users require many of the tools of data-base management, with their use-specific tasks ranging from recipe calculations to grouping and imputation; these are discussed more fully in section 4 below. It is especially important to note that, with the ever widening usages of food composition data, and with the increasing availability of those data, it is essential that there be consistency in the way these tasks are performed.

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