6 tips for getting the most from your nutrition data

At Cronometer, we pride ourselves in having the best, most comprehensive nutrition database on the market. Cronometer is a powerful tool for tracking your nutrition in great detail. However, with great power comes great responsibility.

Nutrition science and nutrition data is a messy business, and in order to get the most out of Cronometer, it does require its users to be a bit more educated on the nuances and complications around tracking diets.  This article provides a guide through some of these issues and tips for how to deal with them.

There are two types of food data in Cronometer:

  1. We have a large database of common whole foods, generic foods, and popular brands that have been analyzed in great detail, allowing us to report on over 70 micronutrients.
  2. We also have a large database of branded food products and chain restaurant foods but these are typically limited to the number of nutrients reported on their nutrition label, usually macronutrients and a handful of micronutrients required by labeling laws (sodium, vitamin A, iron, calcium).

If you enjoy the convenience of eating a lot of packaged/processed foods and using the barcode scanner, the downside is that most of the items you scan can will be label data only. If you’re looking at your overall nutrition breakdown, you won’t be getting credit for all the micronutrients those foods may have had, but were not reported on the product label.

If your primary interest is in tracking your macronutrients, then using either is fine as they will all have calories, fats, protein, and carbohydrate data.

If you need to have accurate tracking for micronutrients or amino-acids that are not usually shown on the label, then it’s very important to avoid using the barcode scanner and branded products, as they will not contain that advanced data. You should instead log the closest generic equivalent from our list of common foods.

For example, say you ate some brazil nuts, a great source for selenium. You scanned your bag of Trader Joe’s Brazil Nuts. This packaged product data only contains information on 17 nutrients. If you had logged our generic Brazil Nuts, Unsalted entry instead, you’d get data for 76 different nutrients.

While this is more difficult and time consuming, if an accurate and complete nutrition breakdown is what you’re after, there’s no way around it!

Tip #1: Consider the source

We offer you a few ways to make these judgement calls when logging your foods to Cronometer. The first thing to pay attention to is the ‘Source’ column in the food search results. We obtain nutrition information from a number of sources, and we always show the source of the entry in this column. If the source is USDA’ or NCCDB then this food is from our two most comprehensive data sources, and will typically have 50 to 75 listed nutrient values. If the source is UPC, ESHA, CRDB, or Nutritionix, then it is typically just the basic label data.

Our food search dialog has a number of top-level tabs; to make things easy, the Common Foods tab lets you search just the top-quality sources (USDA and NCCDB).

Tip #2: Check the nutrient count

When you select a food from the search results, we will always show you the number of listed nutrients the food has. This lets you quickly spot if the food has a full nutritional analysis available, or is simply label data.

Tip #3: Alternative Suggestions

Our curation team is hard at work identifying products in the brand database that have generic equivalents with better data. If they’ve tagged a food as having a better alternative, we show you a handy link to the better option. For example, if you search for Trader Joe’s Brazil Nuts, we’ll show you the better option below the serving details.

Tip #4: Understand the limitations

Nutrition data can be messy, even for the high-quality data sources. The actual amounts of any specific nutrient can vary significantly from sample to sample. My apple could be significantly different than your apple, even from the same tree. When the labs do their analysis, they take representative samples of the food for testing. Nutrients are often examined from different samples at different times using different experiments. When we present you with 75 nutrient details for our humble Apple, these numbers were derived from dozens of different laboratory tests and possibly compiled from many different research papers, and we are presenting you with the details for the average Apple.

Don’t get too caught up in getting all your numbers matched to the exact microgram. These are meant to be ballpark numbers, not precision truths.

Tip #5: Weigh it!

If you want the most accuracy, we recommend using a kitchen scale to weigh your ingredients to the nearest gram. Most foods have different serving sizes associated with them, but these can be problematic, especially for certain types of foods. For example, if you want the nutrition for ‘1 cup of raw baby spinach’, this is a very subjective measure. One person may loosely pack the leaves into a cup, and another may stuff them in tightly. Both have 1 cup of baby spinach, but the actual amounts are completely different. The only way to remove the ambiguity here is to weigh the spinach and enter the actual gram weight. This is less of an issue for food types that are more uniform like liquids or powders (my cup of flour should be the same as yours).

Tip #6: Prepare your own from whole foods

This suggestion might sound a little cheeky, but if you truly care about optimizing your nutrition and health, put those convenient packaged products down and learn to prepare your own food from quality whole-food ingredients. Use our recipe editor to save the ingredients for these meals you eat frequently. If you eat real food, you’ll be logging the best data as a side effect!

TL;DR

If you only care about Macros (Calories, Carbs, Protein, Fat) then you can be less discerning, but if you care about the micronutrients, amino acids, and other nutrient breakdowns:

  • Pay attention to the sources
  • Use the ‘Common Foods’ filter as much as possible
  • Look for our suggested alternatives
  • Weigh your ingredients with a kitchen scale
  • Avoid using the barcode scanner
  • Eat whole foods!
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