Food composition data - a basic tool for nutritionists
In the Victoria and Albert Museum in London there is a sign
with the following text: "Science and engineering, building,
agriculture and even cookery depend on accurate weighing and
One of the nutritional science's basic tools - the food
composition tables and now the food composition databanks - are
also an exponent for this statement. The information in these
works has many uses. It is used in the public administration and
in the food industry, among other purposes for the calculation of
the intake of nutrients. It is used in food consumption surveys,
dietary planning and for estimation of the nutrient composition
of composite foods. Beyond this, the information is used in
nutrition research and education in the field of food and
The food information has an extremely wide crowd of users and
this puts forward strong claims for the accuracy, precision and
continuous updating of the food composition tables and databanks.
As foods undergo constant changes, for example due to changes in
the composition of ingredients, changes in the fortification of
the foods, etc., the demand of a constant monitoring of foods is
In Denmark, food monitoring is the responsibility of the
Danish Food Agency. In 1983, systematic monitoring of the Danish
foods was initialised to register and follow changes in the
composition of foods and to estimate the significance of these
changes in the diet of the Danes.
A considerable part of the data appearing in the Danish Food
Composition Databank and the official tables published by the
National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark
originates from the monitoring system. After a pause of a couple
of years, the monitoring of nutrients is continued in specific
Even though Denmark has a long tradition for the compilation
of food composition tables with overviews of the content of
proximates, vitamins and minerals, it was not until 1983, that
the first official Danish food composition tables were published.
Before, tables were compiled and published by persons with close
relations to nutritional sciences as educational materials.
Many nutritionists in Denmark will recognise names like
Richard Ege, Groth-Petersen and Peder Helms, persons, who each in
their own way has contributed to the Danish food composition
tradition in the last half century. On the other hand, it is not
to most peoples knowledge that the Danish food composition
tradition has an interesting history of more than 125 years.
Was P.L. Panum the first person on the arena ?
The 'modern' Danish food composition tables history seems to
start back in 1866, when the medical doctor, professor in
physiology, physiological chemistry and comparative anatomy at
the University of Copenhagen, Peder Ludvig Panum (1820-85, after
whom the present Panum-institute has been named), gave his
'Contribution to the Examination of the Nutrient Value of Foods'
('Bidrag til bedømmelsen af Fødemidlernes
Næringsværdi'). After publishing studies on
metabolism and nutrition previously, Panum was occupied with
practical nutritional issues. He wrote about foods importance in
malnutrition and worked for the use of the results of nutritional
science at that age in practice. He recommended 'blodmel' ('blood
flour', a powder prepared from pork's blood) and gluten bread
(so-called 'power bread') as staple foods and tried at a later
stage (1884) to prepare dietary recommendations for hospitals and
prisons. Panum's big interest in nutrition was also obvious by
his participation (1878) in the 'Society for a Better Milk
Distribution in Copenhagen'.
P.L. Panum never published a food composition table in the
proper sense of the word, but he made a big contribution to the
fact that bad or malnutrition could be the cause of a series of
Chr. Jürgensen, a pioneer
It was the medical doctor, Chr. Jürgensen (1846-1927),
who published the first Danish food composition tables.
Jürgensen was born Åbenrå. After primary school
in Flensburg, he came to Copenhagen, where he graduated from
upper secondary school in 1865. In 1873 he got his medical
degree. Chr. Jürgensen established himself in Copenhagen
after pre-registration year and studies at several clinics
abroad. He specialised in the illnesses of the digestinal tract.
He was the first in Denmark to specialise on this subject, and as
it was also the case for P.L. Panum, he was not always respected
In 1889, Jürgensen opened a clinic for gastro-intestinal
diseases and defended his doctoral thesis the same year. Already
before his dissertation Chr. Jürgensen wrote a number of
theses on gastro-intestinal diseases and dietetics, among these
in 1888 'Grafisk Fremstilling af de menneskelige
Fødemidlers og nogle Spisers kemiske Sammensætning',
eng. 'Graphical Interpretation of Human Food's and some Composite
Food's Chemical Composition' (Schubothe 1888). This work is
considered as being the first systematic overview of the nutrient
composition of Danish foods, with information on the
energy-contributing components like protein (at that time named
'egg white components/albumen'), fat and carbohydrate. The
'modern' concept - vitamins - had yet to be discovered.
Jürgensen's food composition tables found widespread use
and distribution - also in comparison with present Danish food
composition tables. The publication was printed in 8 editions,
among which several in German, up untill 1921. The publication
contained a table with 'Oversigt over Fødemidlernes
Prisbillighed', eng. 'An Overview of the Inexpensiveness of
Foods'. As it is the case also in a series of following tables,
food prices were included in the tables. The aim of the tables
was to a high extent to be used in dietary planning in larger
In 1888, Chr. Jürgensen also published 'Mad og Drikke',
eng. 'Food and Drinks' (Schubothe), a so-called 'almenfattelig
Vejledning for Sunde og Syge', eng. ' Common Recommendations for
Healthy and Ill'. It was published in three editions and several
languages (Danish, Icelandic and German).
Like P.L. Panum, Chr. Jürgensen worked hard to bring the
results of nutritional sciences and dietetics into common
practice. In 1890, he received an official scholarship to travel
abroad to study bread making and bakery science. After his return
to Denmark, Chr. Jürgensen agitated for strong improvements
within this area.
In 1905, he started 'Kogekursus', eng. 'cookery classes', for
medical doctors and students. It was a great success and he got
support from the Government for it’s continuation until
1925. In 1909, he published 'Kogelærebog og praktisk
Kogebog for Læger, Hygiejnikere, Husmødre,
Kogeskoler', eng. 'Cookery textbook for medical Doctors,
Hygienists, Housewives, Cooking Schools' (Schubothe), it was also
published in German.
Chr. Jürgensen was convinced that 'the diet' was the most
important component in the fight against illnesses.
In the shadow of Chr. Jürgensen's extremely active work,
J. Bøkelund published in 1905 'Vore almindeligste
Fødemidlers procentiske Sammensætning Under
medvirken af M. Larsen', eng. 'Our most Common Food's Composition
Expressed Procentually' (16 p., Gad). It is unknown whether this
publication had a wider distribution.
Richard Ege influences Danish food composition tables for
more than 40 years
With the 'discovery' of the vitamins, the nutritional sciences
got a whole new dimension, which - together with the
acknowledgement of food's importance for health - constituted the
basis for the food composition tables as they are today.
Physiological chemistry made it’s entry and got in the
1920'es such an increasing importance for medical science that it
separated out and became an independent subject. A very
remarkable person in this context was the physiologist, Richard
Ege (1891-1974), who was appointed professor in biochemistry at
the Biochemical Institute at Copenhagen University's
physiological institute, the Rockefeller Institute.
In 1932, Folmer Dam published together with Richard Ege 'Vore
vigtigste Fødemidlers Indhold af kaloriegivende
Næringsstoffer og Vitaminer med forklarende Tekst', eng. '
Our most important Food's content of energy-contributing
nutrients and vitamins with explanatory texts' (18 p.,
Svegårds Boghandel, Sorø). This publication intended
for the education in home ecomomics (in this case: Ankerhus,
Sorø) developed into the basis of two publications, which
has been revised and improved up to present. It concerns Richard
Ege's 'Fødevare- og Ernæringstabeller', eng. 'Food
and Nutrition Tables', dels om 'Kosttabeller Ankerhus', eng.
'Dietary Tables Ankerhus'. The latter, especially aimed for use
in nutritional education, are still published by Ankerhus Home
Economics Academy with Bente Jegstrup and Sigrid Willadsen as
authors (Latest edition is 8th revised edition, 2000).
Richard Ege's scientific production is very comprehensive, and
after being appointed professor, he got continuously more
interested in nutritional problems. Furthermore, he worked
strongly for the utilisation of the knowledge in nutritional
chemistry for the society. Among other things, after the second
world war he contributed to the compulsory fortification of
certain cereal products with vitamins and minerals (this
compulsory fortification was abandoned 1 January 1987).
Groth-Petersen's tables - Worth noting
In 1940, dr. E. Groth-Petersen published 'Grundlag for
Beregning af de Menneskelige Fødemidlers kemiske
Sammensætning. En Tabel. (Udgivet med støtte af
Statens Husholdningsråd og Den almindelige Danske
Lægeforenings Hygiejnekomite)', eng- 'The Basis for
Calculation of the Composition of Human Food's Chemical
Composition (Published with support from The Danish Home Econocs
Institute and the Danish Medical Society's Hygiene Committee)'
(90 p., Gad). This publication is remarkable and deserves the
place as one of the most significant Danish food composition
tables - even seen from the present perspective. The tables are
prepared with an unusual scientific insight in the table values'
uncertainty and variability. The tables take into account the
lack of precision of the compositional values are presented with
- a concept even present tables are lacking. It is not possible
from present values to establish an understanding of the
variability of the compositional values, and hence, the
uncertainty in the calculations based on the values.
The tables were founded on a
mathematical-chemiscal-statistical method developed by Rasch og
Groth-Petersen described in Nordisk Medicin, Vol. 3, 1941: 'En
Metode til Rationalisering og Simplificering af Kostberegninger',
eng. 'A Method for Rationalisation and Simplification of Nutrient
Calculations'. It meant, that the direct (concrete) values for a
specific component, nutrient, was not used in the calculations.
Instead, a co-called 'scale level' representing the range of
variability was used. 'Scale levels' had been established for
every nutrient represented in the tables. Every 'scale level',
expressed as a Roman number, was included in the calculations,
and the total of a nutrient calculation was not only the sum of
consumed nutrients, but the consumed amount of the nutrient in
question on each 'scale level'. This facilitated the evaluation
of precision of the final result.
As indicated by L.S Fredericia, The National Vitamin
Laboratory, it 'takes some Work and Thinking to Familiarise
Oneself with the Principles and get Accommodated with using the
Tables in the Right Way. But what is good is not always easy.'
Maybe it is due to the tables’ immediate inaccessibility
that we have forgotten this important principle.
Richard Ege continued
Back to Richard Ege. In 1941, he published 'Vor Fødes
Sammensætning. Arbejdshæfte indeholdende Tavler og
Tabeller efter Portionssystemet til Brug ved Husholdningsskoler,
Aftenskoler, Undervisning i Skolekøkkener samt ved
Husmoderens Planlægning af Familiens Kost- og
Fødevarebudget' (84 p., Nyt Nordisk Forlag) og 'Vore
Fødemidlers Næringsværdi og Pris'
(Munksgaard). In 1952, 'Næringsmiddeltabeller' (Nyt Nordisk
Forlag) was published, a special print the tables from Ege's
nutritional lessons, and in 1953 'KalorieLexikon' (24 p., Branner
In 1963, the 1st edition of Ege's 'Fødevare- og
Ernæringstabeller' (39 p., Nyt Nordisk Forlag) was
published, in 1970, the 2nd edition and in 1975, after Richard
Ege died, the 3rd edition revised by Kirsten Simony.
Ege's 'Fødevare- og Ernæringstabeller' were -
like the 'Kosttabeller Ankerhus' - tables that are clear and
well-arranged, especially developed for education. The tables
contain information about 'indicator' nutrients for about 250
Danish food composition tables enter the the 'computer age' -
Dr. med. Peder Helms, Nutrition Laboratory, Institute of
Hygiene, University of Aarhus was the person that brought food
composition tables into the 'computer age'.
In the beginning of the 1970s, Peder Helms published
'Fødevaretabeller. Tabeller over de almindeligste
fødevarers indhold af energi (kalorier) og
næringsstoffer pr. 100 g.' (eng. Food Tables Tables with
the most common foods' content of energy (calories) and
nutrients) (Akademisk Forlag) with 2nd edition in 1975. This work
was made with 'loose-leaf' tables in a binder, which could be
supplemented when new information about foods and/or nutrients
was available. Although the idea of making the tables 'dynamic'
was obvious as new analytical results appear all the time, it
seemed like Peder Helms realized, that result of publishing
tables in this way brought along a lot of extra responsibility
and commitment. At any rate, the 2nd edition of
'Fødevaretabeller' was also the last.
In 1975, Peder Helms published 'Kostvurderingstabeller' (eng.
Tables for Dietary Evaluations') (Akademisk Forlag, 1975), based
on the 'Fødevaretabeller' mentioned above.
'Kostvurderingstabeller' is a booklet in a handy format,
especially intended for use in nutrition, just like Eges
'Fødevare- og Ernæringstabeller' and 'Kosttabeller
At a very early stage, Peder Helms had the feeling for the
great advantage of the calculation power of computers. He changed
in 1978 the appearance of food composition tables from being
manageable tables intended for education, into tables with one
page per food and indication of the content of more than fifty
nutrients and components.
With this publication, Peder Helms created the foundation for
the establishment of a database for nutrients in Danish foods and
together with Gretchen Klotz. Peder Helms prepared in 1979 the
data foundation for the dietary calculation systems of the
Agricultural Productivity Committee's Home Economics Committee at
the Agricultural Computing Centre.
Already by then, Peder Helms had developed computer based
nutrient calculation systems for microcomputers like the Swedish
ABC80 as well as the Hewlett-Packard pocket calculator with pen
Behind all the newer tables (Richard Ege, Ankerhus, Peder
Helms) lies the enormous amount of work, which the Danish
National Vitamin Laboratory since the first half of the 20th
century has carried out with respect to analysis of foods. Since
the beginning of the 1950s, the Laboratory published it’s
studies of nutrient contents in Danish Foods in a Danish
publication series called: “Statens Husholdningsråds
When the Danish National Food Institute was established, the
National Vitamin Laboratory was incorporated into that, and the
Laboratory’s work with analysis of Danish foods was
transferred as a part of the Food Institute’s work.
The official Danish food composition tables from the
beginning of the 1980s
In 1981, a project agreement was reached between the Danish
Meat Trade College in Roskilde and the National Food Institute
about preparing the basis for a Danish database of nutrients in
Danish foods. The work with compiling the tables is now assigned to Anders Møller
As indicated earlier, Peder Helms’
‘Næringsstoftabeller’ in 1978 was a break
through with the ideas of food composition tables up to then:
from being work done by hand to actual databases.
However, some years go by with converting data from paper into
an electronic format. In the first official Danish
'Levnedsmiddeltabeller' (eng. Food Tables)(790 p., Dafolo
publishers) from 1983, edited by Anders Møller, all the
basic work was carried out with editing sheets for every single
food item. After final acceptance of the editing sheets the data
was put into a databank, which at that time was placed on a
micocomputer. The 1983-tables are printed out from this first
food data bank. The 2nd edition of
‘Levnedsmiddeltabeller’ from 1985 (also Dafolo
publishers) is based on corrections of the original data put into
the databank 1982-83.
In 1989, The Danish Food Agency published the first tables,
which were based on an official Danish food composition databank:
’Levnedsmiddeltabeller 1989’ (864 p.,
Levnedsmiddelstyrelsen) edited by Anders Møller. These
tables contain information of approximately 770 Danish food items
with up to 50 informations (basal information, vitamins and
minerals) for each food item. It is at the same time the first
edition, which contained results from the systematic collection
of food data – the so called monitoring system.
In 1991, The Danish Food Agency published a supplement to the
1989-tables: ‘Levnedsmiddeltabeller, aminosyrer,
kulhydrater og fedtsyrer’ (eng. Food Tables, Amino Acids,
Carbohydrates and Fatty Acids), edited by Anders Møller,
Erling Saxholt and Bent Egberg Mikkelsen.
In 1996, the Danish Food Agency published the 4th edition of
'Levnedsmiddeltabeller', (1718 p., Levnedsmiddelstyrelsen), where
all information (basal information, vitamins, trace elements,
amino acids, carbohydrates and fatty acids) again was put
together in one publication, as in the first edition of
’Levnedsmiddeltabeller’ from 1983. The 4th edition
was edited by Erling Saxholt and contain up to 100 informations
for every item of 826 foods.
Food composition data on the Internettet – The Food
From the year 2002, food composition data have been published
on the Internet at the website: http://www.foodcomp.dk. The Food
Databank version 5 was published in 2002 and version 6 in June
2005. Version 7 was published in December 2008.
The text above is an attempt to give a historic overview of
the development of food composition tables in Denmark. Although
there are more food composition tables in Denmark, some of the
most significant ones have been selected above.
No country is able to produce food composition tables only
based on own analyses without leaving tables with lots of missing
values. When looking at the sources to the many Danish tables, it
is clear, that a lot of foreign sources exist. This is not only
the case for Denmark, and there is through time –
especially recently – numerous international
Reproduced with permission from Anders Møller, Danish Food Information
Department of Nutrition - Mørkhøj Bygade 19 - DK-2860 Søborg, Denmark - Phone +45 35 88 70 00