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close this book Food Composition Data: A User's Perspective (1987)
close this folder Experiences with food composition data: the context
close this folder INFOODS: Background and current status
View the document (introductory text)
View the document Introduction
View the document Growing need for and availability of information on components of foods
View the document Generation and recording of food component data
View the document INFOODS - an international network of food data systems: a framework for discussion
View the document Summary and conclusions
View the document References

INFOODS - an international network of food data systems: a framework for discussion

INFOODS - an international network of food data systems: a framework for discussion

Some General Issues

Assuming, for the moment, that high-quality information on the nutrient and non nutrient profile of foods is available, a data system might be depicted simply, for discussion, as follows:

Inputs à Processing à Outputs

With this scheme in mind it is necessary to consider the following tasks, as discussed in greater detail by Vickery [13]:

1. Definition of the objectives of the food data system.
2. Examination of the present status of collection, analysis, and interpretation of food component data.
3. Assessment of the general design of a system, including technical, economic, and operational feasibility.
4. Practical implementation of the design and evaluation of the system in terms of objectives.

These, as well as other tasks, can be listed and, indeed, discussed separately. However, the building of a functional international food data system requires an iterative procedure.

As indicated above, the first question is: "What should be designed?" The answer involves exploring with users their aims and needs. Thus, the nature of the information required must be carefully identified, and consideration given to the functions that this information is meant to perform. It is fundamental to know early in our programme of work what uses are intended for the output of food component data, for then it is possible to assess the usefulness of the current information and the format(s) in which it is obtained. After this, one can begin considering alternative and perhaps more effective ways of meeting the needs of users of food composition data.

It is worth emphasizing further that immediate output of any data system is a set of products, intended to provide the community with information believed to be of interest to them. Clearly, a prime aim in evaluating, analysing, designing, or perhaps improving systems of food data information is to determine what specific information is of interest and whether the existing or intended products do or will provide what is required. Again it is critical to know the users and the specific uses that are made or might be made of food composition information.

Desirability of an International Effort

The establishment of national and international standardizing organizations and data bases has done much to improve the intelligibility, accessibility, and transferability of scientific and technical data. Thus, the initiation of an international, co-operative effort in food component data systems is worthy of particular consideration, especially when reference is made to the importance of food in international trade, in national and international aid programmes, and in the broad area of international health.

The precedent for an international food component data system has already been set by the many instances of international, non-government organizations working in the field of scientific and technological data; examples are the programmes of CODATA (Committee on Data for Science and Technology), the International Council of Scientific Unions, international organizations concerned with problems of handling data, such as the Rome-based Intergovernmental Bureau for Informatics (IBI), and the United Nations and its specialized agencies.

National food and nutrient data services are being organized in increasing numbers. It would be a major advantage to the community of nutritionists, food scientists, and health professionals if these services were compatible and, indeed, readily accessible. There is thus a need to consider the co-ordination of regional, national, and international food data services. This might range from a centralized file with on-line access, at one end, to a looser co-operation based on common guidelines and standards for information gathering and handling, at the other end. These possibilities are at least technically achievable, since there are numerous computer systems capable of accessing large centralized data banks from remote terminals via telecommunications, as well as systems based on decentralized data banks, updated in interchange of defined format tapes.

The task of placing existing food composition data in machine-retrievable storage is substantial but can be accomplished [6,10]. In terms of the human food supply, it is likely that this task will be done in piecemeal fashion even if a major commitment is made by the scientific community. As Abelson [1] has pointed out, if this problem is left entirely to individual initiative there will inevitably be enormous duplication of effort, and other problems will be neglected. Coordinating such an effort will require a high degree of international co-operation. However, international co-ordination is an attractive idea and we should strive to induce governments, academia, and food industries to provide support and sponsorship of these activities.

We must appreciate that private industries, governments, and non-profit institutions within and between countries will have their own distinct interests and responsibilities, and so a pluralistic approach to the generation, dissemination, and use of food component information is inevitable. It is, however, certain that, in view of the cost and effort involved, there are strong incentives for collaboration in building food component data bases, even if a multiplicity of information delivery systems turns out to be desirable. Furthermore, some central co-ordination is desirable, if only to encourage a degree of standardization and compatibility that will benefit all sources.

INFOODS at Present

Overall Construct

In consideration of the arguments presented above, and with the further assessments and recommendations of a group of experts convened to address the status of the field of food composition data [9], it was proposed to establish INFOODS, defined as:

An organization to promote international participation and co-operation in the acquisition and interchange of data on the nutrient composition of foods, beverages and their ingredients in forms appropriate to meet the needs of government agencies; nutrition scientists; health and agriculture professionals; policy-makers and planners; food producers, processors, and retailers; and consumers

A cornerstone of INFOODS' work plan is the idea that a majority of people involved with food composition data can be categorized as carrying out one of three major activities: generating the data in the laboratory; collecting and organizing the data of others for use by others; or using the data in a number of ways. Of course, these three groups may overlap in that many individuals are involved with two or even all three of the activities. However, they are logically distinct, and it is helpful to consider them as categories for purposes of further discussion in this paper.

Thus, apart from the users and uses of food composition data, there are many other activities involved, which concern the generation and preparation of the data. These would include the analysis of food, the development of analyses, the compilation of specialized data bases, and the design of diet analysis programs. These activities are all ongoing now, but a problem that must be faced is that they are often being done independently. Furthermore they can be, and often are, done in different ways.

This problem becomes obvious when one considers the flow of food composition data: food ~ analysis - data base - user. Just as there are different users and uses, there are different specific paths one might take: ways of selecting foods, performing the analyses, combining replicate analyses, and organizing data bases - each might differ. These paths can produce different numbers; food composition tables or data bases therefore differ, and the numbers in the various tables may mean different things.

The independence of all these individuals and activities relating to food composition data have contributed to the fact that the state of food composition data today is simply not satisfactory. Problems do exist, and many of them can be organized around four specific issues: (a) data do not exist; (b) data cannot be accessed; (c) data are not complete; and (d) data are not accurate.

It was to attempt to resolve these problems that INFOODS was organized essentially as two networks: a network of food composition data, and a network of people interested in food composition data. In addition, a secretariat, with Dr W. M. Rand of MIT as executive secretary, has been organized to co-ordinate the various activities, with major financial support for this purpose coming from the US National Cancer Institute, and additional sponsorship from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture. Administrative support is received from the United Nations University to facilitate the international aspects of the programme.

The scope and precise nature of the networks referred to above continue to evolve but the conceptual outline of the system is shown in figure 1. Thus, it is anticipated that local centres or individual users obtain their data and assistance from regional centres which communicate with each other, with institutions, and with the INFOODS secretariat. These regional centres could be individual countries or groups of countries. Thus, if a user needed data about the nutrient consumption of an immigrant population, some local data might be available or a request made for additional data from a regional centre. It might be that a regional centre would not have all of the information needed, but would, in turn, request such from another region, perhaps via consultation with the INFOODS secretariat to learn whether other data did exist and where they might be found. Most important, this schematic outline emphasizes that the key to this endeavour is communication, often between quite different entities.

Fig. 1. An overview of the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS).

The Approach Being Taken

To achieve a working network, linking together a number of disparate entities, there must be careful and detailed planning. In this context, figure 2 summarizes the major components of INFOODS. In order to achieve our desired results, three major working committees have been established to produce standards and guidelines.

The first of these is chaired by Professor A. S. Truswell of the University of Sydney, Australia. This is the terminology/nomenclature committee, and is concerned with the major problem that foods are not well specified, and have different names in various parts of the world. Often the same name is given to foods that may differ in origin and form. Any interchange of information needs an unambiguous definition of a food. It is of paramount importance that this work be carried out well and carefully. The tasks of the committee include: a review of existing systems, evaluating these systems in terms of their suitability for international exchange of food information, and recommendation of universal, international, standardized documentation language.

The quality of the food composition data themselves are the subject of the second working committee. This is chaired by Dr D. A. T. Southgate of the Food Research Institute in the UK. The overall responsibility of this committee is to develop guidelines and standards for the data used in the construction of food composition tables and electronic data banks. Its long-term goal is to improve the quality of data by standardizing methodologies, and, in the interim, to develop measures of quality and conventions for data reporting. An initial product of this committee will be an updated and considerably expanded version of an earlier guideline for establishing food composition data tables [11].

Fig. 2. Schematic of approach being taken by INFOODS.

The third committee, under the direction of Dr J. Klensin of MIT, is concerned with the information systems component of INFOODS. Several of the more important topics that this committee is undertaking are: (a) data interchange and communication standards; (b) ideal data set content; (c) data manipulation; (d) regional data centre design; and (e) local data centre design, including personal computers and small machines for individual use in office and field settings.

An essential activity that underlies the work of these three groups is a careful survey of the users and specific uses of food composition data. Information to be gathered includes: (a) the magnitude of usage and types of users; (b) the data most frequently needed; (c) the unmet needs and why they are not met; and (d) the users' desires and expectations. What is being sought is not just a catalogue of uses, but a careful and comprehensive examination of how they constrain the INFOODS network itself. For example, how quickly do most users need their data, what precision do they require, and what tools do they have to use the data? With detailed information of this kind it will be possible to arrive at a design for the forms in which the data will be delivered. It is these types of questions that are essential to the design of INFOODS.

Among other activities shown in figure 2 is the promotion of regional INFOODS groups. This is important to the network of people that is a fundamental component of regional INFOODS and essential to its overall success; the data network operates between people, and it is operated by and for people. One of the regional organizations, EUROFOODS (Western Europe), began independently at about the time that INFOODS was established. Other regions include NORFOODS (Scandinavia), NOAFOODS (North America), LATINFOODS (Latin America), and ASIAFOODS (Asia). Early plans are under way to promote regional groups covering the African continent; Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands; and also the Soviet and Eastern European nations. These regional groups are at different stages of development but are being organized with the intent of bringing together the people within a specific geographic area so that they can work efficiently on their own problems as well as interact more effectively within their region. Some of the activities each regional group might be or are involved with include: (a) regional data centres/clearing-houses; (b) identification of regional food composition data problems; (c) co-ordination of regional resources and activities; (d) contribution to development and review of implementation standards and guidelines; and (e) communication with other regional groups and with INFOODS.

In order to further the international contribution that our collective efforts might make toward resolving the many issues related to food composition data, the various activities of INFOODS are also being conducted with formal representation on the working committees by IUNS (International Union of Nutrition Scientists), IUFoST (International Union of Food Science and Technology), and IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists). Additionally, whenever possible the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are represented at the meetings in view of the interest in and concern for food composition data by these UN agencies.