- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

Consumers now have a very comprehensive nutritional database at their disposal, conveniently located on the World Wide Web, courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Those who hunger for more than what they find on the "Nutrition Facts" food label can satisfy their curiosity about everything from soft-serve ice cream to chives, so long as they have an Internet connection.
The reference tool, published online by the USDA on Thursday and available on the Internet at www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/SR15/sr15.html, is meant to provide an educational service for a diet-crazed and overfed America.
Called the Nutrient Data Laboratory, it includes more than 6,000 foods and lists 117 nutrient categories many of which ordinary people might never have heard of for each. Consumers can look up their lunch, choose a serving size and review all kinds of information about what they're eating.
There are a couple of different ways to use the database. Users can search by nutrient, so that if a doctor has recommended a patient get more zinc in his diet, the program will cough up a list of foods that contain the mineral. It is also searchable by food name, listing items alphabetically for the user.
Or one can choose the type-in option: Type "cake" and get a rather large listing 100 items, in fact from which one can make selections such as crab cakes, rice cakes, pancakes, plain old white cake or Betty Crocker Super Moist Party Cake. If time is a concern, being specific will speed up the process.
People can also look up little-known nutrition facts on brand-name breakfast cereals, such as Raisin Bran, which has 100 micrograms of folate, or candies, such as M&M;'s, which have 80 milligrams of potassium.
One would have to be either hypereducated or highly motivated to then put this information in perspective by finding out the Daily Value, or Recommended Daily Allowance, of these vitamins and minerals, available on the Food and Drug Administration's Web site.
Serious types might want to know how many grams of fiber his plate of broccoli delivers or how much niacin is in a nectarine. But with the obesity issue never far from the headlines, many people are likely to be a bit more interested in the calories/fat side of things.
With more substantial foods, a roasted or grilled chicken thigh has 109 calories compared with a fried thigh, which has 238. And that's just dark meat; a half of a roasted chicken breast is just 142 calories (add 76 calories to that if it's fried).
Take bacon, a popular weekend treat. Does anyone eat it for its phosphorus content (64 mg)? Most likely people would want to know that three medium pan-fried slices have a surprisingly slim 9 grams of fat and about 110 calories.
This database, however extensive, is not for mathematicians. In an attempt to be versatile, it lists things such as "Fast foods, burrito, with beans and meat" for foods found in popular chain restaurants.
Such a burrito, according to the chart, has 500 calories, 17 total lipid (fat) and, incidentally, 4 milligrams of iron. Good enough, but how does one tell the difference between a Taco Bell burrito and a Baja Fresh one? By weighing it and then whipping out the calculator. This is a couple of steps too many for most people, even if it's doable.
The creation of this database is yet another step in the government's campaign to help consumers help themselves learn how to eat. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 required the FDA to make nutrition labeling mandatory for almost all processed foods.
It was updated to be much more inclusive in 1994, adding nutrients, such as sugars and fiber, that had been allowed previously on labels but only on a voluntary basis.
At the time, the move made FDA dietitian Virginia Wilkening hopeful for the future of America's eating habits. "With the new label, consumers will soon have information about these and other nutrients, which can help them choose their foods more wisely."

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