Researchers develop food map to pinpoint how Americans eat
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Do your kids love chocolate milk? It may have more calories on average than you thought.
Same goes for soda.
Until now, the only way to find out what people in the United States eat and how many calories they consume has been government data, which can lag behind the rapidly expanding and changing food marketplace.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are trying to change that by making a gargantuan map of what foods Americans are buying and eating.
Part of the uniqueness of the database is its ability to sort one product into what it really is — thousands of brands and variations.
Take the chocolate milk.
The government long has classified chocolate milk with 2 percent fat as one item. But the UNC researchers, using scanner data from grocery stores and other commercial data, found thousands of brands and variations of 2 percent chocolate milk and averaged them out. The results show that chocolate milk has about 11 calories per cup more than the government thought.
The researchers, led by professor Barry Popkin at the UNC School of Public Health, are figuring out that chocolate milk equation over and over, with every item in the grocery store. It's a massive project that could be the first evidence of how rapidly the marketplace is changing and the best data yet on exactly which ingredients and nutrients people are consuming.
That kind of information could be used to better target nutritional guidelines, push companies to cut down on certain ingredients and help with disease research.
Just call it “mapping the food genome.”
“The country needs something like this, given all of the questions about our food supply,” says Popkin, the head of the UNC Food Research Program. “We're interested in improving the public's health, and it really takes this kind of knowledge.”
The project came together in 2010 when a group of 16 major food companies pledged, as part of first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to combat obesity, to reduce the calories they sell to the public by 1.5 trillion by the end of 2015. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation agreed to fund a study, eventually turning to UNC with grants totaling $6.7 million.
Aided by supercomputers, Popkin's team has taken commercial databases of food items in stores and people's homes, including the store-based scanner data of 600,000 foods, and matched that information with the nutrition panels on the back of packages and government data on individuals' dietary intake.
The result is an enormous database that has taken almost three years so far to construct and includes more detail than researchers have ever had on grocery store items.
The study will fill gaps in data about the choices available to consumers and whether they are healthy, says Susan Krebs-Smith of the National Cancer Institute, who researches diet and other risk factors related to cancer.
Government data, long the only source of information about American eating habits, can have a lag of several years and neglect entire categories of new products — Greek yogurt or energy drinks, for example.
With those significant gaps, the government information fails to account for the rapid change in the marketplace.
While consumers may not notice changes in the ingredient panel on the back of the package, the UNC study will pick up small variations in individual items and begin to be able to tell how much the marketplace as a whole is evolving.
“When we are done, we will probably see 20 percent change in the food supply in a year,” Popkin says.
For example, the researchers have found an increase in the use of fruit concentrate as a sweetener in foods and beverages because of a shift toward natural foods, even though it isn't necessarily healthier than other sugars.
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