Global Initiative Reveals Huge Gaps in Knowledge About What We Eat

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A ground-breaking new paper published in Nature Food from the Periodic Table of Food Initiative (PTFI) exposes a critical gap in our scientific understanding of the foods we eat. It unveils a meticulously curated list of 1,650 nutritionally and culturally diverse foods for biochemical analysis, of which more than 1,000 are not included in any globally recognized food composition databases. Such databases are typically used to issue dietary guidelines and to guide agricultural policies.

“A substantial portion of what humanity consumes remains a scientific mystery,” said Selena Ahmed, Global Director of PTFI at the American Heart Association, which co-facilitates the PTFI Secretariat. “Not only have these foods been invisible to nutritional science, but an estimated 95% of the biomolecules in food have escaped our analysis and don’t appear on food labels. We may think we know what we’re eating, but most of the time, we have limited understanding.”

The 1,650 foods on the list stand in contrast to the narrowness of most human diets today. Only three main crops — wheat, maize and rice — provide almost half of global calories and are largely grown as monocultures.

The list was compiled through a global participatory process involving 40 experts from regions around the world. It represents a cornucopia of foods chosen for their contribution to the human diet, cultural relevance, diversity and innovation potential as the climate changes. Along with the American Heart Association, PTFI is facilitated by the collective leadership of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, which contribute scientific advice and knowledge to the initiative.

“There is a pressing need for comprehensive, publicly accessible metrics that acknowledge the interconnectedness of our food, our health and our environment,” said Maya Rajasekharan, Managing Director of Africa at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT and Director of Strategy Integration and Engagement of PTFI. “For decades, food has been viewed through a reductionist lens, often simplified to calories and essential nutrients. PTFI promises to fundamentally change this approach for the better.”

“PTFI was born from a visionary and ambitious idea to create an enabling platform built around food composition. Rather than only focusing on the few commonly analyzed components of a handful of foods, our goal is to enable the mapping of the entire complex makeup of many permutations of every food on the planet in a standardized and open format. This way, the information can be universally used to benefit human and planetary health,” said co-author Dr. John de la Parra, Director, Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation.

Analysis is already underway on hundreds of the listed foods, using sophisticated new technologies, from high resolution mass spectrometry to artificial intelligence, to discover the “dark matter” of food — the tens of thousands of still unknown biochemicals that determine food quality and health impacts.

The PTFI list is particularly noteworthy for its breadth. Of the foods listed: 30% are fruits; 25% are vegetables, 8% are nuts and seeds, 8% are land animal products and 7% are aquatic animal products. Others originate from fungal and bacterial species — and one is a lichen.

Some 476 foods are considered global in nature (broadly cultivated and consumed), while the others are regionally important, originating from either the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Pacific or Europe. Today, 62% of the listed foods are not documented in global public databases such as FoodData Central of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations database.

One of these foods — wattle seeds — come from Acacia trees native to Australia and have been used by Aboriginal communities for thousands of years. Like many of the foods on the list, questions abound about how they impact health at different stages of life, their nutritional and medicinal qualities, and their role in the ecosystem. The list also includes 98 African crops, 56 of which are undocumented in food databases.

“Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and the devastation of the planet,” said co-author Bruce German, Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of PTFI and Director of the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California, Davis. “The foods we grow are driving diet-dependent diseases that are a major cause of morbidity and mortality around the world. And the only way to fix this, the necessary step, is knowing what food is.”

PTFI stands out from other food databases because it curates and considers vast quantities of data on the environmental and agricultural practices that shape what is in food. By understanding these connections, PTFI can help create a sustainable food system that takes into account everything from how food is grown to the way it is processed and prepared.

“The PTFI’s findings represent a clarion call for further research across the food system — from farmers to policymakers, from nutritionists to chefs, from scientists to consumers — to make informed decisions that promote diversity, sustainability, and resilience in food production and consumption,” Ahmed said.

On April 23-24 in New York City, PTFI will roll out a core set of foundational resources (data, tools and capacity-strengthening measures) that researchers everywhere can access to generate detailed information on the biomolecular composition of foods from around the world and perform extensive studies using standardized methods.