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close this bookFood, Nutrition and Agriculture - 12 - Food Composition Data (FAO - FPND - FAO, 1994)
close this folderThe importance of the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS)
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View the documentImportance du réseau international des systèmes de données sur l’alimentation (INFOODS)
View the documentImportancia de la red internacional de sistemas de datos sobre alimentos (INFOODS)


N.S. Scrimshaw

Nevin S. Scrimshaw is the Director of the Food and Nutrition Programme for Human and Social Development, United Nations University (UNU), Tokyo, Japan.

Reliable data on the nutrient composition of foods for human consumption are critical for many areas of endeavour including health assessment, the formulation of appropriate institutional and therapeutic diets, nutrition education, food and nutrition training, epidemiological research on relationships between diet and disease, plant breeding, nutrition labelling, food regulation and consumer protection, as well as for a variety of applications in agriculture, trade, research, development and assistance.


In 1961, a regional food composition table was published which was developed for Latin America by the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) with the help of a consultant, Dr Wu Leung, provided by the International Committee on Nutrition for National Development (ICNND) in the United States (Wu Leung and Flores, 1961). FAO then arranged for Dr Wu to develop food composition tables for Africa (Wu Leung, 1968) and Asia (Wu Leung et al., 1972). Around the same time, food composition tables for use in the Near East were developed and published by the American University of Beirut (Pellett and Shadarevian, 1970).

The data in these tables were often based on a very limited number of samples or even on a single sample in some cases. The tables provided data for fewer nutrients than are required in tables today. Finally, some of the analytical methodologies used at that time are no longer acceptable, Despite their serious inadequacies, these regional tables are still being used because often no more up-to-date information is available, While the amount, quality and availability of the food composition data vary among countries and regions, in general adequate data are simply not accessible for most developing countries.


These circumstances led an international group of concerned individuals to obtain the support of the United Nations University (UNU) to organize a conference at the Rockefeller Foundation Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy in 1983. The meeting developed plans for an international initiative to improve the quantity, quality and availability of food composition data in developing countries (Rand and Young, 1983, 1984). On the basis of the recommendations of the conference, the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS) was initiated in 1984 as part of UNU’s Food and Nutrition Programme, Its goal was to stimulate and coordinate efforts to improve the quality and availability of food composition data worldwide and to ensure that anyone around the globe would be able to obtain adequate and reliable food composition data.

In furtherance of these purposes INFOODS has provided leadership and an administrative framework for the development of standards and guidelines for the collection, compilation and reporting of food component data. It is establishing and coordinating a global network of regional data centres directed towards the generation, storage and dissnation of accurate and complete data on food composition. It is also the generator and repository of special international databases and serves as a general and specific resource for persons and organizations interested in food composition data on a worldwide basis, The INFOODS secretariat has developed the necessary software for the electronic storage of food composition data and the exchange of information among databases.

The INFOODS effort is intrinsically interdisciplinary, Food scientists, analytical chemists and nutritionists work together with computer and information scientists, who are doing new work on data interchange models, statistical and scientific databases, data descriptions and models of information retrieval and classification, A new UNU/FAO-sponsored IUNS committee is developing quality codes to be applied to all food composition database entries to guide users. It is anticipated that the code will Indicate, for each food entry, the representativeness of the sample, the adequacy of the documentation and the quality of the analytical technique.

INFOODS policy committee meetings were held in Madrid, Spain in 1984 and in Budapest, Hungary in 1986, At these meetings the functioning and responsibilities of regional committees were discussed in depth and the long-range goals and strategies established at the Bellagio meeting were reaffirmed. INFOODS symposia or workshops have been held at the periodic regional nutrition meetings in Africa, Latin America and Asia and at the last two international nutrition congresses.


Through UNU-sponsored International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) committees, INFOODS has been able to ensure the completion of a series of key publications. The first, Food composition data: a user’s perspective (Rand et al,, 1987), presents the views and experiences of prominent workers in the field concerning the importance of food composition data, current problems and what must be done to improve the situation. It provides an essential introduction and survey for anyone interested in or expecting to be involved with gathering, compiling and using food composition data. It emphasizes the ways in which food composition data underpin research and policy in important areas of public health, dietetics, nutrition and epidemiology as well as the critical importance of such data for the food industry and the key decisions made by bilateral and international assistance agencies, It is a useful reference for university courses on food and nutrition.

Food composition data have been compiled in many databases throughout the world, As the uses of these data increase, larger numbers of individuals and organizations become involved in the compilation, and thus the need for guidelines on data gathering, formatting and documentation increases. Compiling data for food composition data bases (Rand et al., 1991) describes and presents recommendations for the procedures involved with compiling the values for food composition databases. Specifically, it addresses the five major ways to obtain data on the nutrient content of foods: direct analysis based on analytical measurements; calculation of representative values (e.g. using weighted means of several samples);

gathering from other sources (e.g. from other tables or the literature); estimation from similar foods (e.g. substitution of data); and estimation from ingredients (e.g. recipe calculations).

The effective use of food composition data requires the precise identification of the nutrients and other food components actually measured. The variety of common names for food components can result in different quantitative values for the same food, Identification of food components for data interchange (Klensin et al., 1989) provides the first comprehensive standardization of food component nomenclature for international nutrient data exchange, It sets out a straightforward set of rules for identifying food components precisely and constructing databases suitable for transfer between computers.

The INFOODS food composition data interchange handbook (Klensin, 1992) focuses on the identification of nutrient and non-nutrient components of foods, the computer representation of food composition data and the organization, compilation and content of food composition tables and databases. It presents the structure and rules for moving data between countries and regional organizations in a way that preserves all of the available information, The publication also alerts the developer of databases to potential areas in which ambiguities are likely and special care should be taken. It identifies mechanisms for the improvement of overall database quality.

Food composition data: production, management and use (Greenfield and Southgate, 1992), produced with support from UNU, is an updated version of Southgate’s classic manual, This revised volume systematically and authoritatively covers the initiation and organization of a food composition data programme. Topics include the selection of foods, sampling, choice of analytical methods, quality control, conventions and modes of expression of data, nutrients to include and guidelines for use, It is an essential companion to the other INFOODS manuals described above.

A report outlining INFOODS guidelines for describing foods, developed by a UNU-IUNS committee, was reviewed at a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark in July 1987 and later published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis (Truswell et al,, 1991), The report is based on extensive international consultations and is intended to be culture independent, The guidelines are designed to facilitate the exchange of food composition data between nations and cultures by compilers of nutrient databases, The approach is a broad, multifaceted and open-ended description mechanism using a series of descriptors. Criteria are proposed for deciding whether a food is “single” or “mixed” (multi-ingredient), and different sets of descriptors are provided for these two classes of foods. Familiarity with the approach is useful in other areas of nutrition, for example, in recording food intakes. Because of the complexity of describing foods when many different languages and cultures are involved, these guidelines are being re-examined by a new UNU-IUNS committee.

There are currently more than 200 national, regional and global food composition tables in use around the world that contain some unique data. INFOODS maintains an up-to-date computerized listing of these tables, the Directory of food composition data bases. It is available in whole or in part at cost through electronic mail or regular postal services.

In 1987 the United Nations University established the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, copublished by Academic Press. The journal covers all scientific aspects pertaining to chemical composition of human foods, with emphasis on analytical methods for obtaining data, data on composition of particular foods and studies on the manipulation, identification, statistics, storage, distribution and use of food composition data.

The network also publishes the INFOODS Newsletter, which is sent periodically to all interested persons on a worldwide mailing list.

INFOODS recommendations

The key to the interchangeability and accessibility of the INFOODS system in developing countries is the universal use of the recommended specifications for recording and presenting food composition data. These specifications are quite flexible and permit the inclusion of any number of additional nutrient tags and qualifiers, Adoption of these specifications for databases in industrialized countries as well should greatly facilitate the global interchange of data, The recent decision to use them for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food composition tables is a major advance, Even more important is the endorsement of these specifications by FAO as an international standard.

INFOODS and other systems

From its inception the INFOODS system has had the capacity to incorporate codings from other food coding and data systems, such as the Langual system developed by the United States Food and Drug Administration, However, an investigation carried out jointly by INFOODS and EUROFOODS (the regional INFOODS organization for Europe) strongly suggested that the level of classification implied by Langual is not currently applicable to most countries, although it is potentially valuable for specific applications in a few advanced countries.

An interchange conversion programme has been developed that reads or writes files in either the format used by INFOODS or those used by the United States, United Kingdom and others (Klensin, 1992), The efficiency of the system will be greatly enhanced by the universal adoption of the INFOODS nutrient identification tags. While the tags have been published (Klensin et al.. 1989), they are being continually amplified as new needs develop. The nutrient tag directory is maintained by the INFOODS secretariat in Palmerston North, New Zealand and is available at all times by electronic mail, Qualified users can register new tags that they have found necessary.

A single food composition database?

INFOODS continues to receive proposals for the promotion of a consolidated world food composition database in a central location. The original Bellagio meeting and all subsequent consultations deemed such consolidation to be technically, scientifically and politically inappropriate.

Continual updating of a global database would involve unfeasible demands on personnel and communications and is quite unnecessary when data from regional databases can be compiled electronically for any purpose, Any organization can access and retrieve information from any INFOODS regional database worldwide. Continual updating as new data become available is much more feasible as a regional task. Moreover, it gives the countries of a region direct responsibility for their own data.


EUROFOODS was the first of the regional associations (West, 1985), followed by ASEANFOODS for a grouping of Southeast Asian countries (Rand et al.. 1985), OCEANIAFOODS for the countries of the western Pacific (English and Lester, 1987) and LATINFOODS for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (Bressani, 1987).

Funds from UNU in 1992 allowed for the purchase of high-capacity computers for ASEANFOODS and OCEANIAFOODS and for training in their use, A 1993 grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada provided similar support for LATINFOODS, including computers for subregional databases in Guatemala and Chile as well as the requisite training. The regional databases of ASEANFOODS in Thailand and LATINFOODS in Guatemala are now functional, and those of LATINFOODS in Chile and of OCEANIAFOODS in Fiji are expected to be operational by 1995.

In Latin America most countries have formed their own food composition committees; the most active groups are ARGENTINAFOODS, BOLIVIAFOODS, BRAZILFOODS, CHILEFOODS and VENEZUELAFOODS. Ricardo Bressani, the chairman of LATINFOODS, has developed a standard form for recording sample information and analytical data, which all member countries have agreed to follow. He also initiated an exchange of comparison food samples for quality control. Five regional LATINFOODS meetings have been held, A new Central American food composition table has been completed, and INCAP and the Institution of Nutrition and Food Technology (INTA), working jointly, are expected to complete a new Latin American food composition table in 1995.

Countries participating in ASEANFOODS are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam are associate members, Current activities of this locally initiated network include the development of a sampling guideline for food composition table development, which will be formulated and distributed to the national coordinators for comment. The analytical methods used in ASEAN are documented; this is essential to ensure standardization of methodologies. The method of testing used by ASEANFOODS provides for the analysis of standard samples for quality control by the laboratories in the region, An operating manual for the use of the ASEANFOODS database and interchange system based on recommended INFOODS procedures has been adopted.

The task ahead is to complete the INFOODS global network in developing countries. A preliminary meeting to discuss the organization of AFROFOODS for Africa south of the Sahara was held in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1988. Funds from IDRC made possible another organizational meeting in September 1994, Subregional databases were agreed upon for English-speaking East Africa in Harare, for English-speaking West Africa in Accra, Ghana and for French-speaking Africa, probably in Dakar, Senegal, Initially, the coordinating secretariat will be in Harare. It was also agreed that a regional centre would be established in Tunis, Tunisia for NAFOODS, for the five countries of North Africa.

More regional databases are being planned, The USDA Nutrient Data Laboratories have agreed to serve as the coordinating centre for NORAMFOODS, to include Canada, Mexico and the United States. A regional meeting in Beirut, Lebanon is planned for the organization of ARABFOODS for the Arabic-speaking countries of the Near East and the Persian Gulf, An organizational meeting will be held for SAARCFOODS, to include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, China has also offered to host a regional meeting on food composition data.

The ultimate objective of INFOODS is to have every developing country in the world associated with a regional database that, in close cooperation with the databases in the industrialized countries, can supply them with the best available food composition data and assist them in developing national databases adapted to specific uses. This goal is now in sight.


Bressani, R. 1987. Memorias de la primera rion sobre tablde composicie alimentos LATINFOODS. Arch. Latinoam. Nutr., 37:607-626.

English, R. & Lester, I.H., eds. 1987. Proceedings of the First OCEANIAFOODS Conference. Canberra, Australian Government Publishing House,

Greenfield, H. & Southgate, D.A.T. 1992, Food composition data: production, management and use. London. Elsevier Applied Science,

Klensin, J.C. 1992. INFOODS food composition data interchange handbook. Tokyo, United Nations University.

Klensin, J.C., Feskanich, D., Lin, V., Truswell, A.S. & Southgate. D.A.T. 1989. Identification of food components for data interchange. Tokyo, United Nations University.

Pellett, P.L. & Shadarevian, S. 1970. Food composition tables for use in the Middle East. Beirut, American University of Beirut,

Rand, W.M., Pennington, J.A.T., Murphy, S.P. & Klensin, J.C. 1991, Compiling data for food composition data bases, Tokyo, United Nations University.

Rand, W., Stuckey, A., Valyasevi, A. & Tontisirin, K. 1985. Proceedings of the First ASIAFOODS Conference. Bangkok, Prayurawong,

Rand, W.M., Windham, C.T., Wyse, B.W. & Young, V.R. 1987. Food composition data: a user’s perspective. Tokyo. United Nations University.

Rand, W.M. & Young, V.R. 1983. International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS): report of a small international planning conference, Food Nutr. Bull., 5(2): 15-23,

Rand, W.M. & Young, V.R. 1984. Report of a planning conference concerning an international network of food data systems (INFOODS). Am. J, Clin. Nutr., 39: 144-151.

Truswell, A.S., Bateson, D.J., Madafiglio, K.C., Pennington, J.A.T., Rand, W.M. & Klensin, J.C. 1991, INFOODS guidelines for describing foods: a systematic approach to describing foods to facilitate international exchange of food composition data. J. Food Compos. Anal., 4:18-38.

West, C.E. 1985, EUROFOODS: toward compatibility of nutrient data banks in Europe. Ann. Nutr, Metab., 29: 1-72.

Wu Leung, W.T. & Flores, M. 1961, INCAP-ICNND food composition table for use in Latin America, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, Interdepartmental Committee on Nutrition for National Defense, National Institute of Health.

Wu Leung, W.T., Butrum, R.R., Chang, F.H., Rao, M.N. & Polacchi, W. 1972. Food composition tables for use in East Asia. Rome, FAO/Bethesda, Maryland, USA, United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Wu Leung, W.T. 1968. Food composition tables for use in Africa. Rome, FAO/Bethesda, Maryland, USA, United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.