The prevalence of diet-related disease across the globe is significant and is continuing to increase. In fact, poor diet is now responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide and many countries are now facing the double burden of malnutrition – cases of over- and undernutrition rising simultaneously. The importance of implementing effective healthcare policies and strategies to help manage, reduce and prevent diet-related diseases has never been more important.
It is also pertinent to compare diet and nutrient intake from different countries to help researchers understand the impact different dietary patterns can have on health outcomes and to highlight where countries and regions may require additional nutrition support.
But to form appropriate healthcare strategies, policy makers must first have sufficient evidence and understanding of their population’s dietary habits and nutritional status.
However, not all countries have the appropriate tools - including an appropriate food and nutrient database - required to accurately measure food and nutrient intake in a cost-effective and timely manner. But why is having an assessment method tailored to a region important for accurate diet and nutrient analysis?
Why is a localized food composition database important?
Food composition databases need to reflect the foods and nutrients available within the region that is being assessed, and therefore localised databases should be used wherever possible. This is due to a variety of factors:
Differences in nutrient composition
Nutrient composition varies between countries and regions due to differences in farming methods, weather conditions and even the food manufacturing processes used, among others. For example, soil surface preparation (tillage) and fertilisation can influence the bioavailability of nutrients, including phosphorus. A recent study examined the effect of tillage on soil surface chemistry and found that plant nutrients such as iron, phosphorus and manganese had higher concentrations in soil that had no tillage.
Iodine levels in soil also vary across regions due to proximity to the sea, typically coastal regions have higher soil iodine levels and as a consequence, crops grown in these areas have higher iodine levels. Irregular weather conditions can also cause differences in soil condition. For example, Mediterranean soil has shown to have low concentrations of iron, due to hot and dry weathers. Therefore, it is important that the underlying food composition database has been developed with these factors in mind i.e., analysing samples from local regions to capture appropriate nutrient levels.
Differences in dietary habits
Dietary habits can also differ between countries and regions due to variations in food availability, food security and food culture, among others. For example, consumption of shellfish in north-western and eastern countries is significantly different. There is also little-known information about accurate dietary patterns in low-income countries, due to lack of health literacy and measurement of dietary intake. Due to these difference in dietary patterns it’s important that the choice of food and drink products available when analysing nutrient intake is appropriate for the population.
Incomplete food composition tables
Traditional dietary assessment methods have been shown to have incomplete nutritional information ‘nutrient gaps’ and do not often accurately reflect overall nutrient intake.
Whilst many countries do have food composition tables that are used to measure diet and nutrient intake, many lack branded products, have incomplete nutrient information, are outdated (likely due to the level of time and money required to develop/update them) and may use unreliable data, all of which can impact on accuracy. Regions without their own food composition tables are forced to use others which may not be appropriate for their population and can introduce errors and bias leading to under-/overestimation of nutritional intake.
For these reasons it’s important that wherever possible countries should use their own appropriate, localised and nutritionally complete database that can accurately measure and reflect dietary intakes within their region.
Access to effective dietary assessment methods
Access to digital dietary assessment methods is not available in some countries, due to lack of composition databases, technical complexities, and inaccurate data collection. Without digital methods, countries must instead use traditional paper-based methods to measure food and nutrient intake which can be costly and time consuming. One study found the cost of conducting a two-round 24HR survey in Sub-Saharan Africa to be approximately $247 per household.
Another barrier to accessing effective dietary assessment methods is a lack of accurate food composition database due to the financial investment required to develop them. Many lack essential nutrients that are found in commonly consumed local dishes, or do not have sufficient documentation that supports the creation of the food composition databases, as a result they can be unreliable.
Lack of reliable internet connection can also limit access to effective dietary assessment methods, as broadband internet access has now been recognised as a social determinant of health; recent research shows.
As a result, most food composition databases are often outdated, and can lead to inaccurate conclusions and inappropriate policy decisions.
How can myfood24 overcome these challenges to help to support and enhance international nutrition research?
Committed to providing an excellent standard of nutrition related research across the world, the team behind myfood24 have developed multiple international versions of the research solution for the following countries: Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Middle East, Caribbean, Peru, Uganda, Australia.
Appropriate and tailored food and nutrient datasets
Each version is underpinned by a robust, localised food and nutrient database that includes food items local to the area including a range of branded and generic items to reflect food and nutrient intake within the area. Most of our international datasets have been created in collaboration with researchers and institutions from the region to ensure appropriate foods and portion descriptions/images are used.
Where possible, each international dataset has been through a rigourous nutrient mapping process to create a more complete profile to minimise gaps in nutrient composition, for more accurate estimates.
To support both researchers and participants using the system, the nutrient analysis platform has also been translated into the following languages: Arabic, Danish, French, German, Norwegian and Spanish each with an appropriate choice of databases to use.
Efficient and cost-effective solution
Using myfood24 provides a cheaper and more efficient alternative to traditional paper-based methods. Taking a digital approach to measuring diet and nutrient intake, myfood24 is completed by participants and the system automatically calculates nutritional composition of diary entries, removing the need for interviews or diary coding. Researchers can access accurate results quickly and easily.
myfood24 can now also be completed offline – meaning an internet connection is no longer required to submit a diary. Get in touch to find out more about our offline version.
Taking a systematic approach to database creation
When creating each international solution, our team use a tried and tested, robust methodology to database creation, which has been validated against independent nutrient biomarkers to provide trusted results. Using a systematic approach to measuring diet and nutrient intake can support international comparisons between countries to learn more about diet-related health outcomes and inform health policies and strategies.
Our international solutions are underpinned by a validated database that has been expertly mapped by our data team, with some accompanied by portion size images.
Interested in learning more or would like to collaborate on a new country specific version? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch.