For over a century, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been an international leader in the field of publicly available nutritional analysis. In recent decades in particular, the USDA has developed and hosted a number of widely used reference systems and databases that provide nutrition information and values for a huge variety of foods and beverages.
Earlier this year, the USDA took yet another step forward in this area with the launch of FoodData Central, a comprehensive new data tool that aims to modernize and unify several existing nutrient datasets. Read on for a closer look at this important new initiative that will help all kinds of people and institutions learn more about our food.
What is FoodData Central?
Launched in April 2019, FoodData Central is an open, integrated data system that provides users with easy access to both the USDA’s existing stock of food composition data. It also allows users to access nutrient content information that has not previously been available. Additionally, FoodData Central connects users to additional sources of pertinent information related to agriculture, food, health, and dietary supplements. Consolidating all these data into one, unified system makes it easier for researchers, industry representatives, policymakers, and others to find the information they need to more effectively address vital issues of nutrition and health.
Why was FoodData Central created?
In today’s food industry, our food supply is evolving all the time. New products and formulations are continuously introduced into the marketplace, while other products are eliminated. Furthermore, the ingredients and raw agricultural elements used to make these products are themselves undergoing constant modification.
All these changes have significant implications for research, food policy, nutrition advice, and product development. There is therefore a critical need for transparent, functional, and readily accessible information about food nutrients, components, and products. FoodData Central was created by the USDA in response to this need.
What types of data can be found in FoodData Central?
FoodData Central contains five different categories of data: two are new and three were previously existing. Each data type is unique and was developed in order to meet different needs. The five data types are:
Foundation Foods—This category includes data on nutrient values as well as comprehensive foundational metadata on foods that are currently available to consumers. This metadata is comprised of points like the number of samples, sampling locations, and analytical approaches used. With this information, users can get a clearer picture of the variability in provided nutrient values for different foods. Foundation Foods is a new data type; the information in this category has never been available before.
Experimental Foods—This data type focuses on foods that are produced under experimental conditions and that are not yet commercially available. The Experimental Foods category links to a variety of sources for relevant agricultural research data, which will allow users to examine the different factors, such as geography and agricultural techniques, that could affect the nutritional profiles of these foods. Like the Foundation Foods category, the Experimental Foods data type was not previously available.
SR Legacy—As the name suggests, this legacy data consists of the final release of the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Data in this category were compiled using earlier approaches to nutrition profiling and provide users with an in-depth list of values for nutrients and food components.
Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies—The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey contains a dietary survey component called What We Eat in America. This data type provides information on food and beverage nutrient values and weights as reported in the dietary survey.
USDA Global Branded Food Products Database—A public-private partnership provides these data on the nutrient values that appear on the product labels of branded and private label foods. All information in this category is supplied by food industry data providers, and its presentation is standardized by the USDA.
How can data from FoodData Central be used?
With the launch of FoodData Central, the USDA is once again confirming its role as the authoritative source of food composition data and the primary source of publicly available nutrient data. These data are used by many different actors and stakeholders, such as federal agencies, food industry representatives, health professionals, academic researchers, and consumers, for many different purposes. Examples of potential uses of the data in FoodData Central include:
Monitoring—FoodData Central data allows relevant agencies to track the US population’s health and nutritional status.
Research—Data from FoodData Central can be used in research on a wide range of topics, such as community nutritional status, the impact of price on food and nutrient consumption, and the relationship between diet and disease.
Development—The development of research tools, such as specialized nutrition databases, is supported by data from FoodData Central.
Policy—A wide variety of food and health policies, initiatives, and regulatory actions are informed by FoodData Central data, including Nutrition Facts Label regulations.