We are a people eager for knowledge. We are becoming consumers increasingly aware and looking for more and more information on the food we eat. And we can say that nowadays finding all this information is quite simple, especially on packaged foods, thanks to the nutritional labels. In contrast, this is not true for unpackaged foods. Just think of all the food that we can buy in bulk in the various markets, or directly from the small local producer. In these cases, where can we find the nutritional values or other data on that particular food? Well, basically we only have one option: query the nutritional databases. Okay, but where do we find them? How should we interrogate them to recover data on that particular food? In this post, we will try to explain it in a simple way!
In Europe, the EU Regulation no. 1169 of October 25, has defined the rules currently in force on the format of the nutritional label. In particular there is a fixed set of mandatory data. Producers/manufacturers may also add voluntary information to differentiate its product from another one. In this way, we customers and consumers can compare the values of all the products that come from any member states of the European Community.
We were talking about nutrition labels. We have all noticed the nutrition labels on packaged food products. They describe the characteristics of that specific product. They allow us to choose between similar products according to our food needs. For this reason, the nutritional label must be presented in a standard way on all products, in order to facilitate the reading, interpretation and comparison of similar products. In addition, the label must be as comprehensive as possible and contain all the information necessary to assist us in choosing.
Let’s see a concrete example of a nutritional label. This is a label on a pack of Sardinian brown rice.
As we said, EU Regulation no. 1169/2011 established the mandatory information to be reported on the label. And the producer may add further optional content. However given the limited space, this particular label contains only the mandatory set of information.
Let us analyze the various fields on the label. The values are referred to 100g or 100ml of product.
- The first line contains the energy values both in kilojoules (kJ) and in kilocalories (kcal). One kilojoule corresponds to 1kcal x 4.2.
- Then we have the total amount of Fat, i.e. those normally present in the food plus those added during processing. The amount of saturated fat included in total fat is specified.
- Next the total Carbohydrates, with the detail on the quantity of simple sugars present.
- After that the Proteins. The label shows the total amount of proteins present in the food.
- Finally the Salt. This element is important because there is a strong correlation between salt and high blood pressure.
Three examples of databases
It is very important to have data relating to the specific foods of the country in which you live. For example, we are located in Sardinia and therefore we must use the Italian database. At the same time, our products NurTrack and Nurscan will be used both in Italy and in other European countries. This is why we took an interest in the databases of neighboring countries: France and Switzerland.
The data come from the database of CREA, Alimenti e Nutrizione – Italy. The CREA produces and selects these experimental and compiled data. These data relate to the foods most consumed in Italy. For example, the 2019 version contains about 900 foods divided into 20 categories. The nutrients and components present are over 120, but not all are available for all the foods in the database.
The “Centre Informatique pour la QUalité des ALiments – Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l ‘alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail” publishes the CiQUAL composition table. In this case, the 2017 version contains average nutritional information on 2,807 foods consumed in France and 61 constituents.
The Swiss Food Composition Database contains information on the composition of the foods available in Switzerland. It is managed by the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office – FSVO. The contents are edited by the Swiss Nutrition Society – SSN. The software comes from the ETH Zurich. For example, version 6.1 contains around 10000 foods, divided into 19 main categories and 105 sub-categories.
Query the nutritional databases
Let’s see now how to query the nutritional databases. We are looking for the same ingredient in two databases, French and Swiss: brown rice.
Let’s first look at the result of the research carried out on the French database – basic composition tab. Compare it with the values for 100g of product shown on the Sardinian brown rice label in the figure above.
- energy in kCal (and in kJ): 341 kcal (1427 kJ)
- total fat: in the table are reported as lipids: 2.8 g
- available carbohydrates: 71.4 g of which 0.66 g of sugars
- proteins: 7.02g
- salt: 0.01 g
Obviously, these are average values in France for the brown rice. Do you see the some small differences with our Sardinian brown rice?
Finally we look at the result of the search on the Swiss database for the same type of product. We see immediately that the table is presented differently. Again, we compare the values with the values on the Sardinian brown rice label.
- energy in kCal (and in kJ): 350 kcal (1480kJ)
- total fat: 2.8 g
- available carbohydrates: 71.4 g of which 0.6 g of sugars
- proteins: 7.4 g
- salt: 0g
Here also these are average brown rice values in Switzerland. Do you see the small differences with our Sardinian brown rice?
As we have noted, when we compare the values written in the rice pack with those of the French database or the Swiss database we find small differences. And this in a simple product like rice! For this reason we must always use the values indicated in the package – when they exist. Otherwise we must query the nutritional database of the product country. Therefore we will always be sure to have the values closest to the product we are consuming.
Some of the EU regulations (in force as of may 2020):
- Regulation (EC) n. 1924/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 December 2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods.
- Regulation (UE) 2018/848 of the European Parliament and of the Council, of 30 May 2018 on organic production and labelling of organic products.
- Regulation (UE) n. 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers.