Trail Begins at USDA in Search of African Foods

by Tambra Stevenson

WASHINGTON, DC—In the quest for answers about the absence of the nutrient analysis of African foods in the United States, a visit to the Beltsville [Maryland] Human Nutrition Research Center (BHNRC) of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) becomes the first step.

The Student Dietetic Association (SDA) of the University of the District of Columbia takes a tour of the facilities and hears presentations by senior scientists. During the meeting, SDA President Tambra Stevenson raises the question about including African food composition to the U.S. nutrient databases to Pamela Pehrsson, PhD, USDA nutritionist who works on these databases at ARS.

Dr. Pehrsson states that one food sample costs $2,000 and a minimum of 12 samples per food item is conducted. She further states that nutrient analysis is planned around the season and crops are gathered from various states in different climates.

As part of the BHNRC, researchers like Perhrsson work                                                 within the three ARS laboratories:  the ARS Nutrient Data Laboratory, the ARS Food Composition and Methods Laboratory, and the ARS Food Surveys Research Group. These labs develop methods and obtain food-composition data and dietary-intake survey results for public use.

Like Pehrsson who declares the importance of capturing nutrient analysis of traditional foods in Alaskan communities more than five years ago, Stevenson states, “As a future registered dietitian working with foreign-born African and Caribbean communities, the inclusion of their traditional foods in the database can help to develop culturally-based dietary therapies for people with diabetes and other health problems.”

To reinforce this point the foreign-born African population has been a growing population in the United States according to the Brookings Institution.

Stevenson inquires if it’s possible to use the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS) to include African and Caribbean foods into the U.S. nutrient databases.

Since 1990, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations coordinates efforts to improve the quality and worldwide availability of food analysis data and to ensure that anyone anywhere would be able to obtain adequate and reliable food composition data. Within INFOODS, the AFROFOODS section continues to face capacity building as its main issue to develop an Africa-wide food composition database. Currently some African countries use existing food composition tables from developed countries which may have little analysis of tradition African foods.

“Because discretionary funding is shrinking, we must collaborate with industry and universities,” states Joseph Urban, PhD, research leader for USDA Diet, Genomics and Immunology. Partnerships include Tufts University, Nestle and DMI to name a few.

”There are several roles that the food industry, government agencies and universities can play in updating and maintaining this valuable data bank,” Kathleen C. Ellwood, Ph.D., former USDA National Program staff, shares at the 23rd National Nutrient Data Conference more than a decade ago.

“Those roles include providing verifiable information about new food products, providing food samples for analysis, conducting sample analysis, providing data, and direct funding.” She goes on to state that the current funding for the Nutrient Data Laboratory is insufficient to meet the challenge of acquiring new data to reflect changes in the food supply and to continuously update existing data. Therefore, it is imperative that the National Nutrient Data Bank is supported by its numerous partners.

Dr. Urban shares how to advocate for adding new items to the USDA research agenda. “This is the right time to contact the USDA human nutrition program leaders, David Kurfeld and John Finley because the Office of Scientific Quality Review will be reviewing programs to include by year 2013 for the revised 5-year nutrition plan.”

Tambra Stevenson is the President of the Student Dietetic Association at the University of the District of Columbia. Follow her on Twitter at @tambra.
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