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Calories in foods: Health experts want a comprehensive list

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

July 26, 2011|By Daniela Hernandez, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • A public database of calories in foods would help shoppers make better selections, health experts say
A public database of calories in foods would help shoppers make better selections,… (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg )

Just how many calories are in that meal? Last week, more than 35 public health organizations joined forces to petition the Food and Drug Administration to create a public database that would give consumers access to current and comprehensive information about their food.

The American Heart Assn., Chicago Department of Public Health, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, New York City Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Public Health were among the agencies that supported this initiative.

OK, so there’s plenty of nutrition info already out there on the Web. But there aren’t any truly comprehensive and up-to-date public databases on the foods Americans are eating, says Dr. Lynn Silver, director of science and policy in the New York City Department of Health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has one, but it doesn’t let consumers compare different products nor track how ingredients like salt, saturated fat and potassium change in their diets over time, she says. 

“We want to promote transparency so that there is greater competition among providers to make products that are more healthful,” she adds.  

The database would include all foods required to have nutritional facts printed on labels – like cereals, processed meats, canned foods, snacks and sweetened drinks.

J. John Wilson, senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington, D.C.-based organization funded by the restaurant industry, doesn’t think the idea is so hot. He says there’s plenty of information like that already available. "We should be asking how to best motivate people to take action for themselves,” he added.

As we wait to see if the more comprehensive list comes about, here are a few places that offer quite a lot of information. Some require a paid subscription, others are free.

Check out Nutrition Data, a free nutrition database launched in 2003. According to the website, information on the site comes from the USDA’s standard reference database and data provided by restaurants and food manufacturers. You can compare the nutritional value of foods, including fruits and vegetables. And you can search for foods by nutrients you may be interested in, like carbohydrates, fats, protein, calcium, sodium and potassium.

CalorieKing, another online database, offers nutritional information for about 70,000 foods plus a food and exercise diary, nutrition guidance and tools that help users track personal goals. The service costs $12 a month.

The big advantage to the proposed database, however, is that “it would help us to understand what kind of changes are going on in products over time and to marry that information to what consumers are eating,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

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