Navigating nutritional database and labeling software

Nutritional database software was something of an oddity found in few companies. As products must meet the demands of consumers and labeling regulations are put in place, the use of nutritional database software has rapidly developed.

Lynn A. Kuntz, Editor In Chief

March 1, 1994

10 Min Read
Navigating nutritional database and labeling software.jpg

As early as five years ago, nutritional database software was something of an oddity, generally only found in companies involved in developing nutritionally oriented products, or institutions that were concerned with diets. Often, such software was suited to diet analysis rather than individual food products. Even worse, they were often cumbersome and difficult to use. Many food product designers resorted to manual calculations or made up spreadsheets to calculate the nutrients of interest.

Recently, two things have spurred the rapid development of nutritional database software. First, more and more products must meet consumer demands for healthy foods. Marketing directives more often include specific nutrient claims: low-fat, reduced-salt, fewer calories, etc. But more importantly, along came the labeling regulations mandated by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990.

The NLEA regulations make nutritional labeling of calories and 12 nutrients mandatory for all processed foods, with a few minor exceptions. Previously, nutrition labeling was optional, unless claims were made. As the specter of massive analytical testing and its associated costs raised its ugly head, several software companies saddled up their computers to come to the rescue.

"Ever since the FDA came out with their proposals, the understanding of the importance of nutrition software has increased to help people comply with the labels," notes Patricia Godfrey, R.D., president, Nutrition & Food Associates, Inc., Minneapolis.

One very important point to consider before reading further: The FDA and USDA have not, as of yet, approved commercial databases for generating the label values for the nutritional content of foods. So if, in the words of David L. Stone, Ph.D., WholeGrain Software in Berkeley, CA, "you like regulatory software," this kind of software can theoretically save some analytical dollars. The less adventurous should stick with analytical data, but there still are some useful software features from both a labeling and formulation standpoint.

"The vast majority of food companies cannot afford the analytical determinations that FDA recommends, so they must rely on database-derived values," notes Stone. "Many companies are relying on a combination of analysis and database in order to reduce analysis costs. Some are analyzing key nutrients to check agreement with database values, others are doing analysis only on the nutrients that vary the most."

Database 101

A database is nothing more than a collection of files that provides quick access to information - in this case nutrient values. What makes it different from thumbing through a copy of Handbook 8, the USDA's Composition of Foods, is that database software can perform calculations, i.e., calculate the total nutrient level of a given formula. It goes one step further in simplifying the process by generating reports. In the case of nutritional software, these take various forms, including nutrition information, label information and potential claims.

This article will look at these programs in two parts - the database itself and the reports. (Or in computer parlance, the input and the output.) The calculations are a matter of correct math and programming - essentially, what happens after one hits the enter key and before the computer spits out the answer.

The input

To truly be called a database program, the software should have a nutritional database or the ability to access one to generate reports.

"The number one thing you want is accuracy of the database," declares Robin Allen, public relations for ESHA Research, Salem, OR. "If the government checks your label values and they're off, that can cause a lot of problems, especially if you make nutritional claims that don't hold up."

The factors to consider when evaluating the accuracy and effectiveness of a database include the source of the data, the ability to change or add nutrient data, and the size of the database, including the number of nutrients, as well as the number of foods and ingredients.

Much of today's nutritional information comes from Handbook 8. Though this information has been considered fairly accurate, a recent report by the General Accounting Offices cited many deficiencies, including erroneous information and the questionable collection of data. Criticism also has been levied that the food industry has supplied much of the information, with the inference that this information is questionable.

To combat the errors, some software companies develop their own databases. They may include Handbook 8 information, but they also try to confirm and add to its data to increase accuracy. In addition, they add ingredients that may not have been included in the handbook - food additives, for example, and ingredients found in ethnic foods and branded items.

Several trade associations - including the American Institute of Baking, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Confectioners and Chocolate Manufacturers Association - have developed nutrient databases that are in the process of obtaining FDA approval.

The ability of the software user to add on to ingredients' nutritional information greatly increases that chances that the information generated is accurate. Not only can they add information that correlates to the actual ingredients they are using, but they can add new items and ingredients that may be unique to their product.

"Vendor-supplied nutrient data can be very valuable," Stone explains. "If you can append the ingredients you use to your database, you can be more confident about accuracy than you would be using a generic ingredient."

Godfrey agrees: "The database that comes with software is not as important as the data that you generate and put into it. You need to get as much of that information as you can."

The number of nutrients may or may not be important, depending on specific needs. If the goal is to determine the nutrient content as it relates to the label, having 100-plus nutrients certainly sounds like overkill. On the other hand, if there is a clinical or scientific interest in the full range of nutrients, this scope is required.

A valuable feature is one that allows the addition of analytical data either to the database or, bypassing the database entirely, allows data to be used for various reports, especially label information. (Although this feature will bypass a discussion of calculations, a program that provides the ability to apply statistical functions such as standard deviation to actual data sets can be very helpful.)

"If you've been getting analytical values from the product over a long time, you can put all that data in and summarize it," explains Godfrey. "It also gives you a feel for how things have changed over the years and helps to build your database."

Another thing to consider is the accuracy of the analytical sample. "With a database program, you're entering all of the components at the correct proportions," notes Laurie North, president of N-Squared Computing in San Bruno, CA. "If, for instance, your analysis is done on a slice of pizza, it may contain more pepperoni than the standard calls for."


The accuracy of the database bears directly on the quality of the information received in the report. But the next consideration is what the software can do. Look carefully at the features to see if they provide the information needed. Most of the packages have unique features that can be useful under a variety of conditions. Each company's requirements vary, naturally.

"You need to look closely at the reasons you're buying a program," advises North. "Then you need to make sure a particular program addresses them."


Look at the sort of information the program supplies and ask some of the following questions. Does it generate figures per serving, by weight, or as a percentage of the RDI or DRV? Does it create a full report that lists the nutrients for each ingredient or a report that lists a single nutrient and its sources? Does the software perform costing? How does the program report missing values for the ingredients analyzed? Are there any comparative functions? How does it account for yield, including moisture and fat loss from cooking or oil pickup from frying? What about nutrient loss through processing?

"We have a number of clients that use our program just for the reports it generates," says Allen. "They aren't affected by the NLEA, but provide ingredients to those who are, and want detailed reports to send to their customers. They can generate things like nutrient spreadsheets, protein quality and vitamin deficiencies."

Label information

Determine what label formats the software will generate. Will it product reports incorporating optional and simple nutrients in addition to the mandatory ones? Can it handle dual or as-prepared declarations? Does the program generate camera-ready art? If so, can it be modified? Besides nutrient content, what other information can be generated? For example, health claims with the required nutrient declaration and ingredient statements. Can the program generate the reference serving sizes that have been established by the FDA? What kind of rounding system does it use to produce the label figures?

"In terms of NLEA software, I believe one of the most important things is the accuracy of the regulations and the regulatory and food expertise of the developers," Godfrey contends. "If you have something wrong, it could affect the entire label. There are frequently different ways to interpret the regulations, so it helps to really understand how the FDA does things."

Most of these programs are quite powerful in terms of the information they can generate and each may offer some special function not seen in the others.

Mind over machine

A very important consideration when evaluating nutrition and labeling software is the human factor. How easy is the software to install, learn and use? Typically, these programs require minimal knowledge of the operating system. Many offer on-screen help to assist the user. Most offer some degree of customer support, from assistance with problems to customization and training.

From the user's viewpoint, several other important considerations must be addressed. Inputting a formula should be as easy as possible. Most databases provide the option of entering the ingredient by both code number and name. Some offer a search function that allows the user to look up ingredients and their nutrient contents.

Any formulas entered should be easy to save and modify. This is especially important when using the program for formulation screening and if/then analyses. When working with a multi-component system, the program should allow the user to add sub-components as either single ingredients or as a full ingredient list.

If a demo program is available, it's helpful to take the product for a spin to see if it fits specific individual needs. Keep in mind that the programs are constantly evolving, so it's always important to check if the company has added new features.

"In the computer world, things change every month, so both our programs and demo disks are being updated constantly," notes North.

"A lot of changes have been driven by customer requests," related Godfrey. "One thing a lot of our customers had requested was costing."

Don't forget, these programs still require a person knowledgeable about the food system in question and its relation to the label regulations to produce accurate information. For example, these programs calculate the amount of nutrients without regard to their sensitivity to heat or other process and storage-related effects. Chances are, little or no thiamine remains after a retort process, but because the program does not reflect this, values will be artificially high. The product designer will also need to calculate the water and fat loss or proportions of a multi-step or multi-component system accurately. Finally, designers also need to ensure that the process conditions actually match the numerical figures. If a theoretical cracker contains 2% salt, but the equipment is delivering 2.5%, the numbers will never match.

"The only way to be sure about the accuracy is to do chemical analysis on a sample of your finished product," recommends Stone. "Then, for the analytical results to correctly describe your product in the future, the manufacturing process must be controlled and constant. Assuming the latter, natural variation in nutrients in the raw ingredients can still result in a nutrient content in the product that doesn't agree with the label values.

"But keep in mind that the FDA allows a 20% leeway in declared values versus their measured content in the product," Stone continues. "The 80-120 rule is intended to take variation into account."

Nutritional database software is, perhaps, one of the fastest-growing product design tools to come along in years. With the proper selection and set-up, they can free technologies for other tasks, such as planning marketing reviews. While it doesn't seem likely that food product designers will be completely replaced by a machine any time soon, it's nice to know that they can help with some of the work.

Food product design

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