Periodic Table of Food Initiative launched with an aim to revolutionize human and planetary health

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A global effort to standardize food analysis will help better understand the impact on human health, agriculture, and nutrition.

The technology that mapped the human genetic code led to major breakthroughs in understanding, diagnosing and even curing illnesses. Now, the Periodic Table of Food Initiative (PTFI) is using a similar approach to deepen knowledge about food composition. The Initiative, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and its public charity RF Catalytic Capital Inc., the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and the Seerave Foundation, and facilitated by the American Heart Association® and the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture), officially launched at an event during the World Health Assembly in Geneva, last week.

Sustainable, diverse foods that complement individual needs can help prevent malnourishment. However, our scientific understanding of the foods that nourish us is still rudimentary. At most, 150 of foods’ biochemical components are measured and tracked in conventional databases, representing only a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of biochemicals in food. The PTFI will characterize and quantify these components in food to catalyze major breakthroughs in nutrition and agriculture.

The need to improve the food system is pressing, as poor nutrition increases the global burden of disease and perpetuates ill-health and cycles of poverty. Additionally, unsustainable agricultural practices, food-based greenhouse gas emissions, market disruptions, food distribution and waste, and a growing population, are degrading the natural resource base that supports nutrition and food security.

“Food and nutritional security are at the center of many pressing global challenges, yet much remains unknown about what’s in our food and how it affects the health of people and the planet,” said Selena Ahmed, global director of the Periodic Table of Food Initiative. “The first step is to standardize not only the way scientists collect food composition data globally, but also what type of data they collect. Then, we will be able to use and share that data to reduce the global burden of diet-related diseases while also reducing the strain on the environment.”

The Initiative will use technology to help develop a food system that more efficiently uses land resources, provides improved nutrition, and respects the diversity of foods consumed all over the world, by convening global collaborative efforts across government, academic and industry laboratories to develop standardized protocols to comprehensively measure and evaluate food composition.

Using advanced scientific practices in analytical chemistry, data processing, bioinformatics, and machine learning, the PTFI will surpass the 300-400 foods currently available in food composition databases to include more than 1,000 of the world’s most consumed whole foods. The project looks beyond commonly analyzed nutrients to include measurements of bioactive chemicals and metadata including how the food was grown, processed and packaged to allow for discovery of food compositional patterns and drivers. With these analyses, the PTFI will enable the global community to develop nourishing diets, possibly with local or underutilized crops, to improve human health and wellbeing, advance sustainability and provide economic opportunities.

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“By working with laboratories around the globe to standardize what we look for in food and how, we are on our way to building a more nourishing, regenerative and equitable global food system,” said John de la Parra, manager of the Global Food Portfolio at The Rockefeller Foundation. “The open-source library of food composition we are building has the potential to impact agricultural practices, nutritional guidelines, health care and how food is processed.”

“Regional and underutilized crops have the potential to transform diets and economies, but we still know too little about their biochemical characteristics to put them to effective use,” said Lucyna Kurtyka, senior scientific program director at the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. “The Initiative is rapidly transforming our food and agriculture knowledge to the benefit of researchers, growers, consumers and the environment.”

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