A Moment of Science

Menu Mapping

New food map could help researchers better understand the connection between food consumer patterns and health.

Woman shops in soda aisle of a supermarket.

Photo: Patrick Lentz (Flickr)

Soda shopper is overwhelmed by endless rows of variety.

The next time you’re at the supermarket, take a look at the sheer number of items on the shelves. Too many to count, right? More than 600,000 packaged foods occupy grocery store aisles each year, and nearly 20% of those foods are replaced yearly by new items.

Lost in the Supermarket

In one sense, the nearly unlimited number of available foods is a good thing. After all, we like being able to choose what we eat. But too many choices can make it difficult to keep track of the nutritional value of this vast array of edibles. Even the federal government has trouble keeping up.

Which is why researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are creating a map of what they call the “food genome.” Using customer purchasing data from supermarkets and nutrition surveys, they’re building a giant database of the American food landscape.

Nutritional Facts

The purpose of the food map is to keep on top of what the food industry is up to, and how its products affect our well-being. For example, the research has revealed that many so‑called “healthy” foods use fruit concentrate as a sweetener, which may sound vaguely more nutritional than sugar. But fruit concentrate is really no more healthful than the processed kind.

The map could also potentially help researchers better understand what people eat in various communities, and how particular diets lead to obesity.

This map probably won’t help you navigate the dizzying aisles of the supermarket. But the food map will show how supermarket selection has changed over time and how these patterns affect human health.

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