Currently browsing posts about: Food-composition

Nov 11 2011

Oh no! USDA cutting back on research.

A couple of days ago, William Neuman wrote about an announcement by the USDA’s statistical research unit that under pressures to cut budget, it would eliminate or cut back on its ongoing research reports.

This is alarming.

As USDA explained:

The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now.

The affected reports include these, among others:

  • Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate
  • Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all
  • Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate
  • Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage
  • Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate
  • Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report
  • Nursery Report – Eliminate

This decision, Neuman reports, “reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness”—translation: lack of political clout in the affected industry—of the 500 or so reports issued by the National Agriculture Statistics Service each year.  The reports will still be issued on the big commodities: corn, soybeans, cattle, and pigs, for example.

Why do I find this alarming?  If these reports can be eliminated, so can the ones that I personally care about and depend on for my research.

I am particularly worried about the invaluable data produced by USDA’s Economic Research Service on the composition of foods, their availability (production less exports plus imports), and per capita nutrient availability in the American diet.

I have plenty of reason to be worried.

For decades, USDA has converted information about food availability to nutrient availability in a continuous series dating back to 1909.  This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day exactly in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006.

I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available.  Here is the response in its entirety:

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

Neuman quoted a former USDA official who argues that pressures to continue the statistical reports are an example of

how hard it was to eliminate a government program, no matter how small the constituency….These congressmen up on the Hill say, “$50,000 is not much, let’s give it to them.”   [The reports apparently cost about $50,000 to produce]

I have a different reaction.  Isn’t it a responsibility of government to produce research that nobody else has the resources to produce?   This argument reminds me of similar ones I hear that if a book hasn’t been taken out of a library in ten years, the library ought to dump it.

This is short-sighted.

Yes, $50,000 seems like a lot of money to you and me, but it is peanuts in comparison to the billions the USDA spends every year on support payments to people who aren’t even farmers.

Hence: alarming.

Jan 20 2010

The perils of interpreting food composition

Thanks to Sodium Girl (see comments under Feedback) for giving me a chance to talk about one of my favorite nutrition topics: how do we know what’s in food.  Her question:

I am on a very low sodium diet…I am beginning to have less and less faith in the nutritional labels – who is regulating them and what process/research do they use to define the amounts? And it is not just produced goods. I find it hard to know what information to trust when it comes to whole foods as well. I know that the USDA reports nutritional values which are the standard. Even with their documents though, a raw egg is 70 mg of sodium while a boiled egg is upwards of 120 mg of sodium – are they taking salted water into account?

This comment sent me straight to the USDA’s nutrient composition data base.  Despite the daunting home page, it’s a lot of fun to use once you get the hang of it.  Start with where it says Search the data base online.  Type in Egg (not Eggs) at Keyword.  Click on Dairy and Egg where it says Select Food Group, pick what you are looking for (I checked “egg, whole, raw;” on the next round, I checked “egg, whole, cooked, hard boiled”), click on Submit, and then decide how you want the data presented.  I chose one large egg.  Bingo.

USDA reports large eggs as 50 grams.  A 50-gram raw egg has 70 mg sodium and a cooked one has 62.  My interpretation: no significant difference.

Here’s the deal on food composition tables: you have to consider these numbers as ballpark figures, not as something engraved in stone.

  • Foods grown and raised in different places under different circumstances have different nutrient compositions, so the food you are eating is unlikely to be identical to the ones tested by USDA.
  • Nutrient amounts depend on weight; if your egg is a little bit bigger or smaller, the nutrient numbers change accordingly.

So you need to interpret food composition numbers leaving a lot of wiggle room.  That’s why I think reporting calories the nearest calorie is silly.  A 50-gram hard-cooked egg is 78 calories?  Plus or minus 10 maybe.

The USDA figures are the most authoritative available.  The office in charge of the nutrient composition data base is an unsung treasure of American government.  The scientists who work there are first rate, but they struggle daily with two problems: (1) not enough money to do their own testing, and (2) food companies know quite well what is in their products but they won’t give the USDA any information about nutrient composition beyond what is on the food label; they consider that information “proprietary” and don’t have to.

When it comes to sodium, which we eat in gram amounts per day, the difference between 70 and 62 mg is trivial.  I use the USDA figures as ballpark estimates and don’t pay any attention to small differences.

Sodium Girl: unprocessed foods like eggs are all relatively low in sodium so you don’t have to worry about it if that’s what you routinely eat.   Things start getting salty when you eat foods like cheese, pickles, and soy sauce, or anything commercially processed or prepared for you by others.  That’s why I’m for getting food companies and restaurants to cut down on salt so it will be easier for you to follow your doctor’s orders.

Jan 9 2008

The FDA’s New Year’s Gift: Posters!

The FDA has produced electronic posters giving the nutrient content of raw fruits, raw vegetables, and cooked seafood (purchased raw). Why? I’m guessing because real foods don’t come with Nutrition Facts labels and you have to go to the USDA’s nutrient composition data base to find out what the details are. You can download the posters in small, medium, large, and extra-large, or just in text format. If you care about which fruit or vegetable has the most of any one nutrient, here’s an easy way to find out. Have fun with them!

Dec 31 2007

Nutrient composition: philosophy

This question comes from Sheila: “Recently, I was served a plate of “salad” that consisted entirely of several varieties of vegetable sprouts and grain sprouts, dressed with a fresh herb dressing. It was delicious. The salad maker stated this small plate of sprouts held the nutrient content of several cups of fresh whole vegetables, stated the nutrients are quite concentrated in the sprouts. Is this true? The only “literature” I can find on this subject is from seed companies who obviously have a vested interest in selling the seeds for the sprouts. I would appreciate knowing the true comparison of nutrient content. Thank you.”

Food composition: My immediate question is “which nutrients?” Sprouts have so much water that their nutrient content cannot possibly equal that of vegetables with less water. But certain antioxidants–sulforaphane, for example–are more concentrated in sprouts than in adult plants. Ordinarily, questions about food composition are easy to answer. Look up the food on the USDA’s food composition data base. But I can’t find anything about sprouts on the USDA site. A Google search turned up bean sprouts on a data base from the Australia and New Zealand food standards agency. Sprouts are 93% water, and 100 grams contain 9 mg calcium, 129 mg potassium, and 10 mg vitamin C. In contrast, broccoli (according to USDA) is 89% water, and has 47 mg calcium, 316 mg potassium, and 89 mg vitamin C. So broccoli beats sprouts for those particular nutrients. Sprouts are fine to eat and the small amounts of nutrients they contain are useful. So enjoy them! And happy new year!

Sep 10 2007

Today’s Question: Feed Efficiency

I haven’t thought carefully about this question since I first read Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet in the 1970s: “I have a question…about growing grains for livestock feeding: When corn, for example, is grown, it has a k/cal value, or an amount of caloric energy that I assume can be counted for human nutrition. As it is used for feed, is caloric energy lost in the transfer? In other words, is the resulting food (all the butchered and eaten parts of a cow, for example) similar in energy content to the edible feed that went into it? I assume we lose some caloric value along the way, but how much? To me, this has all kinds of implications that I’d like to ponder, including the implications of this from the (admittedly broad) prospective of global hunger.”

This is about “feed efficiency ratios”–the amount of food it takes to make a pound of animal or a pound of us. Let’s hear it for Wikipedia, which has a nice summary with a reasonable reference. It takes more grain to make beef than pigs, chicken, or fish. A lot of those animals are not usable for food (maybe half a beef carcass, for example) and we have our own problems with efficiency. The calories listed in food tables are pretty much what we can use and the better tables specify how well the meat is trimmed. Good question!

Aug 19 2007

More Pesticides in Dried Fruit?

It’s a slow news Sunday, so I’ll just answer a couple of questions, both of them using USDA’s food composition data. Here’s a question from a reporter: “There seems to be consensus from the sources I’ve so far read that dried fruit contains higher levels of pesticides than fresh. What I can’t figure out is if that is only because typically one eats more dried fruit in a sitting (6-8 dried apricots as opposed to 1-2 fresh, for example) and that when you dry fruit there’s less volume but the same amount of pesticide, or if more pesticides are used on dried fruit for some reason.”

Answer, of sorts: This is a concentration issue. There can’t be more pesticides on dried fruit than there were on the fresh; there is just less water so the amount per weight appears greater. The same is true of nutrients. Some will be more concentrated (calories!). Others will be lower because of losses during processing (vitamin C, for example). For nutrient composition, USDA data are easy to use. Unfortunately, no such thing exists for pesticides.

Jun 29 2007

Food Composition Tables

A reader asks what might be the ideal percentage of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in diets. It’s not an easy question to answer because the percentages could vary a lot, depending on the amounts of good fats (monounsaturated, for example) and good carbohydrates (whole grains). In any case, it’s too hard to have to look up the nutrient composition of every food you eat. But I sometimes have fun using the USDA’s food composition tables. They do require interpretation though as the numbers may or may not reflect what you are actually eating. Carrots grown in California may or may not have the same nutrient composition as those grown in upstate New York. I consider these tables a national treasure and wish the USDA would put more resources into making them even more comprehensive.