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close this bookFood, Nutrition and Agriculture - 12 - Food Composition Data (FAO - FPND - FAO, 1994)
close this folderFood composition information: the food industry’s perspective
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View the documentInformation sur la composition des aliments: La perspective de l’industrie alimentaire
View the documentLa información sobre composición de alimentos desde la perspectiva de la industria alimentaria


G.A. Purvis

George A. Purvis has worked for the International Life Sciences Institute and Research Foundation. He is currently affiliated with Michigan State University, USA.

Food composition databases are vital for food product development, food description and nutrient composition values used by the food industry, The purposes of developing this information are relatively broad. Applications may include the setting of standards of food adequacy and uniformity; formulations of foods with specific nutrients; purchase specifications for food ingredients; and criteria for compliance with regulations. The data are used to determine the nutritional adequacy of foods and diets and as a basis for communication with consumers.

For a wide range of foods, government publications have been the sources of food composition information. The best recognized and most extensive publication is the United States Department of Agriculture Handbook No. 8, Composition of foods (USDA, 1963). From its first publication in 1950 through numerous updates and expansions, it has served as the broadest cross-reference for the food industry, especially in North America.

Individual companies within the food industry have compiled composition and ingredient information about finished products (that is, food as it is consumed) for specific food categories. This is used for direct or indirect communication to nutritional scientists and to consumers. For example, the Gerber Products Company has published Nutrient values since 1955 and updates information when products or analytical values change (Gerber Products, 1992), The Campbell Soup Company and H.J. Heinz Company were among the early food manufacturers that made composition information available. Many other companies in North America and western Europe have provided nutrient information as well. The industry compilations have been used to complement the government’s published information and for promotional purposes. Published information can generally be obtained by contacting the manufacturer, either by telephone or mail.

It is important to note the limitations of food composition information from individual food companies, Each company is specialized and works with a limited range of foods and processes. As a result their individual tabulations make up a fragmented set with considerable variability in method of presentation, scope of foods and degree of processing, Although the results are correct, the presentation is not uniform. For example, some data are expressed “per 100 grams”, some according to container size and some “per serving”. Some information is provided for raw or uncooked foods, while other data refer to cooked foods.

The food industries in developing countries have functions and requirements similar to those described above, Resources, however, are generally not as extensive, and the distribution of the data is not as broad. As a result, the information is not as widely available and well developed. In general, the information that is collected is restricted to that which is required for compliance with domestic, regional or trade regulations or for safety. Broader information is not required for consumers or for strict manufacturing control.


Collection of food composition information is mandated for compliance with and communication of regulatory requirements and standards. Requirements apply to labelling, safety and trade.

Internationally, the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling has communicated uniform methods for the use of food composition information on the labels of numerous food categories, both in draft and final form (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1994), emphasizing the importance of valid and current food composition information for international trade, Data on the composition of ingredients is critical to predict the composition of finished products. Information about the finished (processed) food is required to verify the nutrient contents claimed on the label, The Codex Alimentarius Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses has emphasized the importance of using food composition for universal definition of numerous dietary foods (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1992).

In the United States, regulations for nutrient labelling were defined in 1972, and the requirements necessitated the collection of extensive information to verify nutrient claims, Existing data compilations were helpful but inadequate for meeting the statistical and sampling requirements, and additional analytical programmes were needed. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990 (United States Public Law 102-535), for which final regulations were issued in 1993, made nutrient labelling mandatory for most packaged foods (United States Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, 1993).

In the United States, the Infant Formula Act of 1980 (United States Public Law 96-359) established numerous criteria for the infant food industry to follow to raise the level of sophistication of data collection and to introduce methods for fail-safe control over nutrient contents (United States Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, 1985). The statistical handling of analytical information, verification of analytical results and use of index nutrients for validation of data for groups of nutrients are most significant.

Trade associations have established technical and scientific committees of industry scientists for all food categories to address the need for technical information, the compilation of data and communication to regulatory groups and consumer audiences. The focus for trade associations has been to address problem areas, fulfil regulatory needs and manage crisis situations, The results, generally, have not been published.


Industry’s needs are guided by consumer information and food safety requirements and by changes in international trade. Numerous regulations establish and define the needs.

Consumer Information

Science and technological advances in processing, storage and distribution are of growing importance in the modern food industry, Food composition information is critical for regulatory requirements and to meet consumers’ needs. More complete information provides lay consumers with an opportunity to select a diet that is or is perceived to be more healthful. The consumer demand for information is perhaps most intense in North America and Europe, but the needs are universal, regardless of geographic area, regulatory jurisdiction, level of economic development or stage of an industry’s growth.

The need to inform consumers is the most direct force that motivates food manufacturers and distributors to provide food composition information, Consumers are generally more alert about nutrition and more conscious of health matters than they were ten years ago. While the quality of their knowledge could be improved considerably, consumers’ curiosity or desire to know certainly prompts food distributors and regulators to provide information.

Among the most demanding consumers are those who require information to fulfil children’s nutritional needs for growth and development, There is also a demand for information related to the prevention of diet-related diseases. For instance, consumers are concerned about weight control and about fat, sodium and fibre intake, Health claims (for example, that foods are low in sodium, low in calories, high in potassium, etc.) abound worldwide, and analytical results are essential to establish and verify these claims.

Food safety

Food safety hazards from naturally occurring components or environmental contaminants frequently constitute an impetus to develop and maintain a food composition database. The format and sampling programme and many analyses for these components are compatible with those used for nutrients, and they can be used in cross-applications if handled judiciously. For example, several natural food components present safety risks if consumed in excess; vitamin A and salt are outstanding examples, Lead and nitrates are commonly measured food components that are also environmental food contaminants. The use of resources to obtain food composition data can be more readily justified if there is more than one potential application.

International trade

International trade agreements are rapidly developing as a result of the increasingly global nature of business and extensive changes in the food industry. The development of universal standards for the European Union (EU), the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, for example, emphasizes the necessity of universal standards for food composition information. The standards are, with few exceptions, not yet finalized, and composition data requirements remain to be defined.

The NLEA requirements and the standards of the EU and the Codex Alimentarius Commission require supporting data for substantiation of label declarations, health claims and standards of identity, Permissible variation from stated levels can be established for naturally occurring components and for nutrients added to foods, Nutrient analyses are, and will be, collected to comply with requirements, either through regulatory structures or with a system such as ISO 9000, a model quality management system developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Product formulation and evaluation

Companies use their analytical information internally in product formulation and design, They use analyses of ingredients and finished products to adjust formulations for control of organoleptic qualities and costs. Food technologists must be convinced that more precise data provide them with the opportunity to define and develop foods that are more uniform, nutritious and safe.

Food companies frequently conduct or support studies to evaluate the adequacy of a diet or of foods within a diet. This information is used in formulating or preparing foods to fulfil a perceived dietary inadequacy, Also, industry food composition information has been utilized to support scientific evaluation of foods or of food supplies. The United

States National Research Council has conducted numerous evaluations of diets or dietary factors relying on industry information in part or in total, Some examples include the Recommended dietary allowances and Pesticides in the diets of infants and children (United States National Research Council, 1989, 1993).


These are dynamic times for the entire food supply system, including the food industry. Trade is carried out on a global level, processing advances are being made and scientific developments are providing new ingredients, Some examples of recent innovations are enzymatic process aids developed through biotechnology and selected waxy maize varieties that provide more acid and heat-stable food starch. Technological changes require more detailed monitoring of composition, and analytical improvements make measurements feasible as never before.

The establishment of the extent of needs for data is vital, Foods, ingredients and the processes to be evaluated should be carefully selected. Resources are too expensive and too scarce to allow for wasted analyses, unneeded tests or collection of information for the sake of having information, Questions need to be focused to define clearly the scope and extent of food composition data needs. For example, can information that is collected to fulfil a practical need such as label verification also be used for dietary research? Conversely, can statistically validated research data be used to verify food labels? If the data quality and identification are adequate in both cases, the information should be interchangeable.

International emphasis

The provision of ingredients from sources throughout the world presents a need for accurate and contemporary composition information, Elements of ingredient or food purchase specifications require analytical verification or certification, Specifications therefore provide a potential source of information as well as an application for databases, This is particularly true for fruits and vegetables which may be used fresh or processed. An estimated 40 percent of ingredients are grown in a country other than the one in which they are processed. Transportation and reliable sources make it possible to harvest foods in the southern hemisphere for winter markets in the north, A citrus freeze in the United States no longer creates a shortage, because fruit is readily available from Brazil with a minimum price differential, However, there is a lack of valid information to document differences due to geographic, varietal and agronomic variation. Is the vitamin C content of Brazilian juice equivalent to that of juice from the United States? Varietal differences have been established for most domestic ingredients from historical information, but databases are essential to establish similarities and differences among ingredients from different countries.

Processing advances

The influences of processing on nutrients have been determined largely by monitoring for the past 50 years. There has been a distinct lack of controlled studies to define the differences in changes in nutrient content with changes in processing. For example, it is often assumed that heat processing universally reduces nutrient content. The converse can be true: processing can improve nutritional quality. For instance, heat treatment of soy flour improves protein quality and digestibility, and heat and alkali treatment of maize releases a significant portion of niacin, Food composition studies have not been conducted to determine the precise changes in heat-labile food components. It is therefore important to identify the food sample precisely.

Finished-product data can be determined from analyses made for labelling purposes, but information for comparing pre- and post-processing measurements is not generally available, The differences between values for fresh and processed food are significant, For example, the vitamin C content of processed stored orange juice from concentrate is substantially less than that of fresh orange juice, Realistic sampling and identification practices are needed, and they are often not identified in tabulation and reporting.

Processing status is not a routine part of reporting, Evaluation of processing changes is important and is often overlooked in data collection and evaluation. Processing practices are under constant modification, in most cases to make processing less severe, For example, heating processes are changed to have less influence on heat-sensitive components, In addition, it is recognized that aseptic handling of food, which involves much less total heat than conventional retort handling, results in less degradation of the colour and flavour of the food.


For numerous reasons, less developed countries have greater needs for accurate food composition data than more developed nations. The nutritional adequacy of individual foods and of diets is more important in developing areas than in areas where food supplies are more adequate. Generally, the variety of foods is not as great and nutritional status is less adequate than in developed areas. Thus, individual foods are even more important than in developed areas, particularly if they are formulated, prepared foods.

Numerous products demonstrate the feasibility of producing nutritionally sound processed foods, with relatively sophisticated design, specifically for use in developing countries. If quality foods are to be developed for commercial distribution or to be manufactured for government-supported distribution, the consumers’ actual needs relative to their perceived needs must be established as thoroughly in developing countries as in more developed ones.

Calculations are needed more often in developing countries, since on-line measurement capability is lacking and resources within processing operations are limited or unavailable, Outside laboratory facilities are usually not available or lack sophistication. Accessible and understandable food composition data assist in bridging the gaps.


Food composition data are generally collected by industry to fulfil a specific need, Therefore, the design for sampling and analysis may or may not be adequate for general usage. Moreover, the scope of foods covered is limited to the foods manufactured by the individual food company.

If industry participation is to be obtained, it is important that individual companies be encouraged. Often the resources are not available to prepare information in an acceptable form or to disseminate the information. It may be possible to encourage company participation through inducements such as data bank utilization to reduce the necessity of company analyses or appeals to the corporate responsibility of the company’s management.

The existence of information and its availability are two entirely different matters, Some food processors, for example McDonalds, Gerber, Campbell and Heinz, publish information for consumers and professionals, However, most food processors compile information to fulfil internal needs, and many consider this information proprietary. Therefore, methods for independent accumulation and evaluation are necessary, It is vital that the quality of data be scrutinized.

Utilization of the same food composition information for multiple purposes makes very good sense from the standpoints of efficiency and effectiveness. If cross-validity can be established and accepted, numerous uses are possible for the same data compilations. For example, nutrition labelling data sets should be adequate for academic dietary evaluation. Information would need to be housed at an institution with the legal and physical means of protecting and maintaining the data to ensure their integrity and quality and the ability to eliminate obsolete data. Too often, academic data are obsolete for industry use because of the delays involved in the review and publication process.

Because of the expense involved and the limitation of resources, all data sources should be included, with their validity taken into account.


The food industry has a long history of developing, using and presenting food composition information, The availability of reliable and recognized composition data is a basis for many functions within the food industry, including the design of food products, compliance with regulations and consumer communication.

The global nature of the food industry makes availability of detailed, current and extensive composition information imperative. Advances in science and technology have heightened the importance of reliable information, particularly analytical information.

Developing countries have the same needs as more advanced countries for development of food products and industries, assurance of nutritious foods and formulation of sound food policies. The principles are universal; only the resources are different.


Codex Alimentarius Commission. 1992, Report of the eighteenth session of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses. Rome, FAO/WHO.

Codex Alimentarius Commission. 1994, Report of the twenty-third session of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling. Rome, FAO/WHO.

Gerber Products. 1992. Nutrient values. Publication No. 55-77, Fremont, Michigan, USA.

United States Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services. 1985. Fed. Regist., January 14,50:1840.

United States Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services. 1993. Fed. Regist., January 6, 55: 2066-2941; as amended April 1, 58: 17085-17171, April 2,58: 17328-17346 and August 18,58:44020-44090.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 1963. Composition of foods. Agriculture Handbook No. 8. Washington, DC, United States Government Printing Office.

United States National Research Council. 1989. Recommended dietary allowances, Washington, DC, National Academy Press.

United States National Research Council. 1993. Pesticides in the diets of infants and children. Washington, DC, National Academy Press.