USDA has a long history of conducting food consumption and composition research. As nutrition science has evolved, USDA has adjusted their approach to account for the many changes in food production, technology, and agricultural practices.
In 2019, USDA launched the most recent food composition database, FoodData Central. FoodData Central aims to create an integrated food web with the goal of creating connections between food and human health. The database currently houses five data types, each containing information on food and nutrient profiles.
Standard Reference Legacy
Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies
Global Branded Food Products Database
Standard Reference (SR) data has been the primary food composition database available for several decades so is likely familiar to those in the food industry. SR data contains a comprehensive list of values for nutrients and food components for a wide range of food products, specifically foods that are highly consumed in the U.S. The data provides average nutrient composition values, derived from multiple sources such as analytical testing, calculations, and literature reviews. The final version of SR data was released in 2018. The dataset is now referred to as SR Legacy and will no longer be updated by USDA.
Foundation Foods (FF) and Experimental Foods (EF) are new data types. With the advancement of technology, USDA can now share more information on data samples and allow users access to metadata (sample numbers, locations, dates, analytical methods, and agricultural production practices) — information not previously available in SR. Foundation Foods data is focused on single ingredient and basic food ingredients (e.g., potatoes, corn, flour, cheese, eggs, beef, soybean oil) — the ingredients used to make up more complex foods — and takes into account variability of raw foods within the food supply.
On the other hand, Experimental Foods data is focused on foods produced or studied under unique research conditions (e.g., experimental genotypes, agricultural systems, alternative management systems) and is intended for research purposes versus consumer use. Historically, this data did not fit within the existing data type categories so it was not readily available to users within the food industry. Now, researchers both within the food industry and in other disciplines can utilize FoodData Central to access this important information. USDA updates the FF and EF data semiannually (generally in April and October).
The Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS) provides nutrient values for foods reported in the What We Eat in America study, conducted as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study. FNDDS utilizes information from Foundation Foods and SR Legacy to develop the nutrient values. While SR Legacy data will continue to be referenced, FF data provides the most current information and will be relied upon more heavily for the calculations. FNDDS datasets are updated every two years in conjunction with the biennial What We Eat in America report.
The Global Branded Food Products Database (GBFPD) provides an opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to collectively share the nutrition composition of retail foods. Previously, USDA included many multi-ingredient food products in its SR data. Due to limitations in budget, endless new products and reformulations, and significant variability between brands, these types of foods will no longer be analyzed and presented in USDA’s FF database. Instead, this information will be housed within GBFPD and updated monthly with the most current data from the industry.
By providing these five datatypes (and with plans for future additions), FoodData Central aims to meet the diverse needs of its many users: researchers, policy makers, educators, nutrition professionals, product developers, the public, and others. As nutrition research evolves, USDA recognizes the impact food components (e.g., nitrites, purines, caffeine, carbohydrate fractions) have on human health, in addition to food nutrients. For this reason, FoodData Central is a food component database, dedicated to capturing current data and anticipating future developments.
You can learn more about FoodData Central on USDA’s website and this journal article, USDA's FoodData Central: what is it and why is it needed today?