What do we eat? New food map will tell us

By MARY CLARE JALONICK
The Associated Press
Modified: May 20, 2013 at 1:17 pm •  Published: May 20, 2013

photo - ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, MAY 20, 2013, AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken April 3, 2013, nutrition scholar Prof. Barry Popkin, head of the University of North Carolina Food Research Program, points to an ingredient label while discussing his study, what foods Americans are purchasing in stores and eating, in his office at UNC-Chapel Hill. Popkin is leading a massive project of researchers who are creating a gargantuan map, something he calls
ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, MAY 20, 2013, AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken April 3, 2013, nutrition scholar Prof. Barry Popkin, head of the University of North Carolina Food Research Program, points to an ingredient label while discussing his study, what foods Americans are purchasing in stores and eating, in his office at UNC-Chapel Hill. Popkin is leading a massive project of researchers who are creating a gargantuan map, something he calls "mapping the food genome." "We're interested in improving the public's health and it really takes this kind of knowledge," he says. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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 creating 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 long 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 different 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 single 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 what exact 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 even 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 first came together in 2010 after 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. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation agreed to fund a study to hold the companies accountable, eventually turning to UNC with grants totaling $6.7 million.

Aided by supercomputers on campus, Popkin and his team have taken existing commercial databases of food items in stores and people's homes, including the store-based scanner data of 600,000 different foods, and matched that information with the nutrition facts 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 — their individual nutritional content, who is buying them and their part in consumers' diets.

The study will fill gaps in current data about the choices available to consumers and whether they are healthy, says Susan Krebs-Smith, who researches diet and other risk factors related to cancer at the National Cancer Institute.

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 types of products — Greek yogurt or energy drinks, for example.

With those significant gaps, the government information fails to account for the rapid change now seen in the marketplace. Now more than ever, companies are reformulating products on the fly as they try to make them healthier or better tasting.

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 also begin to be able to tell how much the marketplace as a whole is evolving.