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Nutrient composition data uses and needs of food companies

Available food composition data
Uses of food composition data
Needs and concerns


Nutritional Biochemistry Department, Ralston Purina Company,
St. Louis, Missouri, USA


The need for good nutrient composition data is recognized by most reputable food companies. The basic objective of any food company is to supply to consumers a highly acceptable food product that will satisfy their nutritional needs while respecting safety standards.

The need for food composition data varies depending on the degree of processing and added value that is applied to the food product. The food industry is a heterogeneous business in that its products range from foods with no (or minimal) processing to highly refined and specific medical foods. These different levels of processing and market orientation determine the need and uses for nutrient composition by food companies.

The frequency of consumption of a food product also determines its importance in the diet and thus the need for nutritional evaluation. Some food products are used only occasionally and therefore have minimal nutritional impact on humans. Others are used regularly and their nutritional composition can be a critical concern for both consumer and manufacturer. The development of complete meals and specialty products for specific groups within the population has further emphasized the need for precise nutritional data.

Available food composition data

The food composition data available are limited to a few sources. An important factor in selecting nutrient composition data is the acceptability of the source to regulatory agencies and scientific groups. The selection of these data is based on well-recognized and scientifically sound sources that will not be subjected to challenge once a product is marketed. This increases acceptance of the products by consumers who are familiar with the need to validate nutrient content for menu planning, for example in hospitals, schools, and other institutions.

USDA, "Composition of Foods," Agricultural Handbook No. 8 and 8-1 to 8-11

This is the primary source of food composition data used in the calculation and formulation of processed food products in the United States [3], and has the advantage of being generally recognized as acceptable to regulatory agencies (USDA, FDA, FTC, etc.), and nutrition and dietetic communities. However, it must be recognized that much of the data in Handbook No. 8 is 20 to 30 years old, incomplete, and may not apply to current food products, for example to basic staples which have changed due to genetics, and processed foods which are continually undergoing development and change to meet consumer demands. Handbook No.8 values can be used in international trade, but often are not acceptable for both scientific and political reasons.

Other Food Composition Data

The FAO Nutritional Studies, no. 24, which gives amino-acid data on foods [1], is widely accepted in developing and socialist countries. The data compiled in the publication are considerably older and focus prominently on basic food ingredients; they are not the same as those given by USDA. McCance and Widdowson's The Composition of Foods [2] provides another excellent source of nutrient composition data, which, while it is directed primarily at foods in the United Kingdom, is relatively current and covers a wide range of nutrients.

Most food companies generate nutrient composition data on their own products, on specific ingredients and on competitive products, and many are particularly well equipped for conducting food composition analyses. Since these analyses are kept current through constant monitoring programmes, they are often more reliable than existing data-base information. Companies may supply data on their products for use in data bases, but may not make available other ingredient information. Similarly, some proprietary information on products may not be released, especially if the products are subject to periodic changes in formulation.

Regulations require that a high percentage of a product meets or exceeds the nutrient levels stated on the label. Label information may therefore understate nutrient composition in order to comply with regulatory needs, with the result that average or typical values are often higher than specified.

Manufacturers' product data sheets are sometimes used when information from a recognized data base is either unavailable or inappropriate. The latter may be due to product changes or to improvements in analytical procedures. Most manufacturers have nutrient data available on their food products.

Published data on specific foods or food ingredients are used to supply specific nutrient information when: (a) these are unavailable from documented data bases, (b) the data are new, or (c) the data are more current and reliable than those contained in the data bases. It requires some effort to determine the reliability of the data source and the compatibility of the methodology with similar values from other data sources.

Uses of food composition data

The need for and use of food composition data by food companies varies according to the type of food product. A great influence on these needs and uses is the type of market in which the products are sold. Those that are advertised as nutritional products or are aimed at nutrition-oriented markets will have a greater need for nutrient composition data than commodity-type products; they will require nutrition support data to validate claims and demonstrate nutritional superiority. Nutrition data may, however, add little or nothing to a company's ability to sell their product and, therefore, be seen as a minor concern. The degree of control that a food company exercises over the composition will influence the need for and use of food composition data. The ability to use nutrient data to increase the sales and acceptance of a product is important to its use in any open market system.

New Processed Food Product Development

Food composition data in ingredients is used to identify the nutrient content of food products under development. The objective may be simply to understand their nutrient composition, or to identify differences from existing products.

The data are used to formulate products to meet specific nutrient composition needs during product development. These types of products are usually designed for specific population segments and nutritional requirements.

Nutrient composition data is also used to identify nutrients that may need to be added to a food product. Nutrient fortification may be targeted to achieve a specific nutrient content or to match the nutrients of an existing competitive food. Final product composition will be confirmed and adjusted after analysis of the product.

Medical and Pharmaceutical Foods

Medical and pharmaceutical types of foods include infant formulas, nutritional supplements, ethical feeding products, and prepared foods with defined compositions for institutional feeding. Special diet preparations which aid in the treatment of specific diseases also require extensive use of food composition data.

This area of food product use and development is more critically based on nutrient composition than that of many other food products. Complete meals or food supplements require accurate and complete data on nutrient content. Menu planning in hospitals and institutions requires complete nutrient data, and the menus must be fully evaluated since the patients are limited in their food selection. The final nutrient composition of the products is usually based on actual analyses rather than calculated values.

A number of specific weight-control and weight-loss food products use food composition data to ensure nutrient adequacy. These types of products and programmes increase the need for accurate nutrient information, since the number of foods consumed is limited and can easily result in nutrient deficiencies.

Needs and concerns

The clear identification of food ingredients and subclasses within a food classification is the first and most essential function of any food composition data base. This will allow the food manufacturer to select correctly the food ingredients, or the nutrient composition for the ingredients, used in manufacturing. This is a particular concern with international programmes since there may be less control over foods and ingredients as regards handling, consistency of production, processing, and identification.

Formulated foods may vary in ingredient composition and, therefore, in nutrient composition. Differentiation by ingredient composition is a factor to take into account in developing a data base. The same products in various parts of the world may be identified differently. Since many local names may not completely identify the product, some means of identification needs to be established, such as ingredient composition or recipe. Since processed foods may be modified or changed over a period of time, a programme for elimination, replacement, and updating of compositions should be incorporated into the system.

Validation and correlation of analytical methods is another potential area for major error in nutrient composition. The users need to know the degree of reliability for the values reported. In order to make product comparisons, it is essential that the data be equivalent, if not the same.

Provisions need to be made to allow for rapid searching and identifying of products. If the search procedures are too time-consuming, it will reduce use and acceptance of the system. Compatibility with existing equipment and methods for easy transfer between data systems is also of practical importance.

Updating on a continuing basis will make the data more significant and usable for the food manufacturer, given the high degree of sophistication in this area. New products, processes, and packaging methods are continually being introduced into the food system, and all of these can and do change the composition of food products introduced to the consumer. To accurately reflect nutrient intake, changes in the food systems must be quickly incorporated into the data base.

In particular, better identification of the fibre components of foods and of methods for their analysis is essential. Fibre types may play a significant role in human nutrition and health. This requires a clear definition of food products to allow evaluation of fibre subclasses relative to metabolic effects and interaction with other nutrients in the diet.


Food manufacturers have uses for nutrient data bases in product development, marketing, and identification of product attributes to the consumer. The food manufacturer needs accurate and current nutrition information on foods that are recognized as scientifically sound by regulatory agencies. The continuing interest of the consumer in nutrition will focus the attention of food manufacturers on nutrient composition and the availability of nutritional data sources.


1. Amino Acid Content of Foods and Biological Data on Proteins, FAO Nutritional Studies, no. 24 (FAD/UN, Rome, 1970).

2. A. A. Paul and D. A. T. Southgate. McCance and Widdowson's: The Composition of Foods, 4th ed. ( HMSO, London, 1978).

3. US Department of Agriculture, "Composition of Foods: Raw, Processed, Prepared," Agriculture Handbook No. 8 (Science and Education Administration, USDA, Washington, D.C., 1976-1984)

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