The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Lifestyle

May 21, 2013

What do we eat? New food map will tell us

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Do your kids love chocolate milk? It may have more calories on average than you thought.

Same goes for soda.

Until now, the only way to find out what people in the United States eat and how many calories they consume has been government data, which can lag behind the rapidly expanding and changing food marketplace.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are trying to change that by creating a gargantuan map of what foods Americans are buying and eating.

Part of the uniqueness of the database is its ability to sort one product into what it really is — thousands of brands and variations.

Take the chocolate milk.

The government long has long classified chocolate milk with 2 percent fat as one item. But the UNC researchers, using scanner data from grocery stores and other commercial data, found thousands of different brands and variations of 2 percent chocolate milk and averaged them out. The results show that chocolate milk has about 11 calories per cup more than the government thought.

The researchers led by professor Barry Popkin at the UNC School of Public Health, are figuring out that chocolate milk equation over and over, with every single item in the grocery store. It's a massive project that could be the first evidence of how rapidly the marketplace is changing, and the best data yet on what exact ingredients and nutrients people are consuming.

That kind of information could be used to better target nutritional guidelines, push companies to cut down on certain ingredients and even help with disease research.

Just call it "mapping the food genome."

"The country needs something like this, given all of the questions about our food supply," says Popkin, the head of the UNC Food Research Program. "We're interested in improving the public's health and it really takes this kind of knowledge."

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