Why is it important to have an accurate food composition database?

One of the greatest challenges in public health nutrition involves limitations in data accuracy when collecting dietary information and at the heart of this is food composition data. In this article, we break down why it’s important to ensure that food and nutrient data is accurate and what to look for when choosing a robust database.

Regardless of the dietary assessment method being used to measure diet and nutrient intake, ensuring that the underlying food composition database is robust is key to providing accurate results. Without this, researchers and healthcare professionals cannot effectively measure nutritional status which can impact academic research results and patient care.

What is a food composition database?

Food composition databases (FCD) are made up of detailed information on the nutritional value of different food items, including a series of macro and micro-nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. They are designed to allow users to convert food and drink intakes into nutrients, their ‘nutritional composition’. The most common FCD in the UK is McCance and Widdowson’s “The Composition of Foods” which includes information on 100+ nutrient attributes for over 1,200 food and drink items. However, databases such as these do have their limitations the main two relevant to this article include: infrequent updates – meaning data can be out of date; and a limited number of foods to choose from due to the level of work involved in creating a FCB, not reflecting the variety of products available on the shelves.

What to look for in a food and nutrient database?

Whether you’re using a food and nutrient database to calculate nutrient intake yourself or using nutritional analysis software with a FCB built-in, there are several features you can look for to ensure you’re using an accurate database.

1. Information is available for a wide range of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals

Many common dietary assessment tools and software focus only on macronutrients consumed typically the 8 ‘back of pack’ or less, without providing any information on micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Whilst this is adequate if you’re interested in counting calories or fat intake only, it does not provide a complete picture of nutritional intake and does not accurately reflect the complexity of nutritional monitoring.

Having a complete picture of an individual’s nutritional intake is particularly pertinent for researchers who are looking into a variety of diet and nutrient-related health conditions and healthcare professionals who are helping patients manage these conditions.

For example, a recent study investigating the limitations of food composition data shows that providing data for phosphorus in databases can aid in the identification and treatment of Hyperphosphatemia (excess phosphorus) in chronic kidney disease.

Unlike many other systems out there, myfood24 holds comprehensive information on up to 120 nutrients, vitamins, and minerals for food and drink items. This is possible due to a unique process performed by our data experts that map our branded food products to items in McCance and Widdowson FCD to provide a more complete nutrient profile including nutrients, vitamins, and minerals rather than using back of pack labeling like other systems have. 

2. The products included are representative of the wide choice of products available to consumers

One of the biggest limitations of many food composition databases is the limited number of products available, particularly as new products are constantly hitting the shelves and eating outside of the home is becoming more common. Due to time and financial constraints, obtaining data for all the new food and drink items on offer is impractical.

The lack of choice available in many food and nutrient databases causes difficulty when completing and coding food intake surveys such as food diaries and diet histories, forcing individuals to choose the ‘next best option’ which can impact accuracy.

However, dietary monitoring platforms that can provide end-users with a wide range of products can help them to select the actual food and drink items they consumed, improving engagement rates helping lead to more accurate dietary recalls and therefore having a positive impact on research and patient outcomes.

To ensure the myfood24 database is reflective of the many food and drink products available, the team of data and nutrition experts are consistently expanding and updating our food and nutrient database with new products and sources. Our UK database now contains over 80,000 products including products from a range of sources including supermarkets, fast food restaurants and takeaways, coffee shops, and home-delivery recipe and meal kits!

3. Data is not crowdsourced, but expertly manipulated and enhanced

Nutrient composition data must be frequently checked for accuracy and reliability given the important role it plays in assessing overall nutrient intake. Given the nature of crowdsourcing, nutritional data that has been created in this way can be inaccurate with the risk of containing input errors and also have an incomplete nutritional profile.

Although they can take more time to create, food composition databases that have been developed by experts who have sufficient nutritional knowledge hold more credibility and can ensure a higher level of accuracy compared to crowdsourced databases.

Each food and drink product included in the myfood24 database undergoes a rigorous quality-checking process by a nutrition expert to ensure the data is reliable and accurate. Our food and nutrient data is never crowdsourced. myfood24 has also been validated against independent nutrient biomarkers, which serves as the gold standard for accurate dietary assessment, giving our customers confidence in the results provided.

You can read more about how the myfood24 food and nutrient databases have been developed.

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