Dietary Assessment Primer

Learn More about Food Composition Databases for 24-hour Dietary Recalls and Food Records

In order to calculate nutrient and food group intakes from foods and beverages reported on 24-hour dietary recalls (24HRs) and food records, nutrient and food group composition databases are essential (see 24-hour Dietary Recall Profile and Food Record Profile). Typically, these databases include a description of the food and a code for each. Each code has associated nutrient and food group composition per 100 grams.

The most widely used nutrient composition databases in the U.S. are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Standard Release (SR) food commodity database and, based on it, USDA's Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS). FNDDS is a database of foods and beverages reported in 24HRs collected in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES); the SR database is used to derive nutrient values for recipes and food mixtures reported in the survey. These databases are the backbone of all other expanded or proprietary nutrient databases in the U.S. One of these proprietary databases, widely used in research, is the University of Minnesota’s Nutrition Coordinating Center (NCC’s) Nutrition Database System for Research (NDSR), which includes approximately 7,000 brand-name products.

In the U.S., the USDA's Food Patterns Equivalents Database (FPED), formerly known as the MyPyramid Equivalents Database (MPED), provides information about food groups targeted in dietary guidance. Each FNDDS food code is associated with values for 37 different food groups (e.g., added sugars, fruits, milk). The units used for the food groups are expressed as the number of units used in the guidance per 100 grams. For example, added sugars are expressed as teaspoons per 100 grams; fruits are expressed as cup equivalents per 100 grams.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Dietary Supplement Database (NHANES-DSD) contains detailed information on the [glossary term:] dietary supplements and non-prescription antacids containing calcium and/or magnesium (antacids) reported by NHANES survey participants since 1999 (Learn More about Dietary Supplements and Estimating Total Nutrient Intakes).

Many commercial products include a dietary assessment method that can be analyzed using associated software and food composition databases to calculate intakes. Some of these, particularly new mobile phone apps, include a limited number of nutrients, often those found on the "Nutrition Facts" label. On the other hand, such databases often include more brand name and restaurant foods and products than currently found in FNDDS. In some cases, these databases are "crowd-sourced," bringing into question the quality of the database. Therefore, in choosing a nutrient/food group composition database, several factors could be considered:

  • Which food composition database provides high quality data on the nutrients and food groups of interest?
  • How complete is the list of foods? For example, are foods commonly consumed in the study population included in the database? For ethnic groups, are appropriate ethnic foods included?
  • Is the specificity of brand name (compared to generic) composition desired?
  • What is the extent and nature of missing data and imputed data? This information should be provided in documentation of the database.
  • To what extent are common mixtures included in the database?
  • How up-to-date are the data?
  • Is it easy to incorporate data for new foods into the database?
  • Is it easy to incorporate data for additional nutrients, food groups, or other dietary components into the database?
  • What is the cost? Commercial vendors may charge a one-time fee and additional fees for database updates.

For More Information

USDA, Food Patterns Equivalents Database.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. 7th Edition. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington DC. 2010.

Directories of nutrient composition databases:

Principal nutrient composition databases in the U.S.:

Useful links to food composition and nutrition sites.