Nutrition Informatics

30 May 2013

Research from the University of Sydney has identified and described emerging technologies to help individuals better understand their nutritional intake.

The research led by Professor Robert Steele, Head of Discipline and Chair of Health Informatics at the University's Faculty of Health Sciences outlines an emerging field, Nutrition Informatics, and identifies standard efforts that can help to build a new field of computing systems, namely Nutrition Informatics systems.

Recommendations from the research include the development of digital equivalents of the physically-printed nutrition fact labels currently found on packaged food items.

Professor Steele says labels currently list macro-nutrient percentages such as carbohydrates, protein and fats, but significant innovations and improvements can be realised by the additional existence of digital equivalents.

Food, nutrition and dietary-related information are increasingly available in a digital or structured form at various stages of the food-production and consumption supply chain says Professor Steele.

This information includes identifier and inventory systems; digitised nutrient component databases; databases of consumer packaged foods indexed by universal product codes (UPCs); greater use of digital point-of-sale systems; and the rapid emergence of health and diet-related mobile 'apps'.

"While these developments have emerged somewhat independently, there is now the potential to move towards further integration and processing capabilities arising from these developments," says Professor Steele.

"In particular in this field we realise the synthesis of agriculture, food-production and nutritional composition considerations with individual health and healthcare considerations and population health - this synthesis is not possible without drawing upon large-scale informatics-based systems".

Other recommendations to further develop these capabilities include: more universal use of unique food identifiers such as Universal Product Codes or barcodes and the extension of these systems; the development of a more advanced international food identifier standards; increased and more exhaustive food analytics testing and government-provided nutrient component databanks; and the increase of data standards to support the transfer of information within Nutrition Informatics systems.

Professor Steele says an example of the latter is the creation of standardised Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable programmatic access to nutrient component databanks.

"The introduction of key standards can assist in enabling an innovative ecosystem of software development in this area and third-party Nutrition Informatics applications and systems," says Professor Steele.

"Ultimately these can assist individuals to eat in a more healthy way and even relatively effortlessly 'optimise' their nutritional intakes for improved health, a key step for preventative health care across the community," states Professor Steele.

Professor Steele is leading a Health Informatics Emerging and Future Directions Seminar a nationally Webcast seminar to be hosted by Standards Australia.