The USDA maintains extensive data on 6,220 food items in what it calls "The USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference." Over time, the database is revised and it is currently working with "release 15."
The data is available on CD-ROM for $20, but you can also search it over the Internet for free and download free software for use on a Windows computer or a personal digital assistant that runs the Palm operating system. You can also download it as an Excel spreadsheet, a Microsoft Access database file or a standard text file that can be read by any word processing program.
You can find a link to these files at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/ or at my nutrition Web site, www.NoBellyPrize.com.
The Windows software, "USDA Food Search for Windows," is a lot faster and easier to use than the USDA's Web site. The file itself is quite large (30 megabytes), which means that it can take about two hours to download using a 56 K modem, though it only takes a few minutes to download if you have a high-speed broadband connection. However, once you have it on your PC, you can easily access all the information. Unlike using the Web site, there are no long delays when you search this program.
And there is plenty information besides calories and carbs, fiber, most vitamins, total sugar and more are covered too. In addition to reporting total fat, it also reports the breakdown of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. This is important because saturated fat (along with trans-fat, which is not yet reported) has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Many experts believe that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, though high in calories, can be good for the cardiovascular system.
Portion size is, of course, critical, when understanding data on nutrition. The program usually defaults by reporting nutrients per 100 gram edible portion, but you can set it to report by different increments, including by the ounce or, when applicable, by the piece.
You can view data on the screen or print out a complete report on any food.
The Palm version of the software includes a search screen as well as a table of contents broken down by food group, such as Baby Foods, Baked Products, Beef Products, Beverages, etc. Having this data on a Palm device can be especially handy if you need to look something up while on the road or even in a restaurant, though I don't recommend that you bring it out while the waiter is at your table unless you plan to leave a very large tip.
Downloading the data as an Excel spreadsheet or a Microsoft Access database file can also be handy but, unless you're quite skilled at using those programs, it might be a bit daunting. Programmers, however, can use the data in these formats - or as text files - to incorporate into their software or Web sites.
Though the information can be very useful, the USDA database is just a database. It does not come with any suggested eating plans or any other recommendations. There are many programs and Web sites that add value to the database by including it within planning programs that help you lose weight, including fee-based professional diet sites like eDiets.com, Cyberdiet.com and WeightWatchers.com.
Ediets, for example, helps you design a weight-loss program based on your preferences and goals. The company can tailor a diet based on the Atkins (very low carbohydrate) principles, the Zone (a mixture of carbs and protein) approach or one customized to fit your needs or desires, such as a cholesterol-lowering diet, a "heart smart" diet or even a "healthy soy" diet.
The company, of course, hopes that you'll pay for its services (it charges $5 a week, billed quarterly with the option to cancel at any time), but even if you don't join you can get a quick analysis that may be of value to some people.
The Internet, of course, offers many other free and paid resources, including online calorie counters and activity counters that estimate how many calories you burn in a day or while doing a particular activity. All of these numbers are approximate but are a good place to start if you don't already have a strong background in the role that exercise can play in helping to lose or maintain weight.
You'll find plenty of links to diet resources, links to download the USDA database as well as some of my writings on the subject at www.NoBellyPrize.com.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid