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Nutrient composition databases in the age of big data: foodDB, a comprehensive, real-time database infrastructure
  1. Richard Andrew Harrington,
  2. Vyas Adhikari,
  3. Mike Rayner,
  4. Peter Scarborough
  1. Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford Nuffield Department of Population Health, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Richard Andrew Harrington; richard.harrington{at}ndph.ox.ac.uk

Abstract

Objectives Traditional methods for creating food composition tables struggle to cope with the large number of products and the rapid pace of change in the food and drink marketplace. This paper introduces foodDB, a big data approach to the analysis of this marketplace, and presents analyses illustrating its research potential.

Design foodDB has been used to collect data weekly on all foods and drinks available on six major UK supermarket websites since November 2017. As of June 2018, foodDB has 3 193 171 observations of 128 283 distinct food and drink products measured at multiple timepoints.

Methods Weekly extraction of nutrition and availability data of products was extracted from the webpages of the supermarket websites. This process was automated with a codebase written in Python.

Results Analyses using a single weekly timepoint of 97 368 total products in March 2018 identified 2699 ready meals and pizzas, and showed that lower price ready meals had significantly lower levels of fat, saturates, sugar and salt (p<0.001). Longitudinal analyses of 903 pizzas revealed that 10.8% changed their nutritional formulation over 6 months, and 29.9% were either discontinued or new market entries.

Conclusions foodDB is a powerful new tool for monitoring the food and drink marketplace, the comprehensive sampling and granularity of collection provides power for revealing analyses of the relationship between nutritional quality and marketing of branded foods, timely observation of product reformulation and other changes to the food marketplace.

  • big data
  • supermarkets
  • web scraping
  • databases
  • front of pack food labelling

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.

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Footnotes

  • Contributors RAH contributed to conception and design of the project and research questions, architecture and development of the software and database, statistical analysis and interpretation of data, drafting the manuscript, obtaining funding. PS contributed to design of the project and research questions, statistical analysis and interpretation of data, drafting of the manuscript, obtaining funding. VA contributed to data processing and analysis, interpretation of data, critical revision of the manuscript. MR contributed to interpretation of data, critical revision of the manuscript, obtaining funding, supervision. All authors have approved the submitted manuscript.

  • Funding This work was supported by a pump priming research grant from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, and is currently supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Oxford. PS is supported by a British Heart Foundation fellowship (FS/15/34/31656). MR is supported by the British Heart Foundation (006/PSS/CORE/2016/OXFORD).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Anonymised datasets used in the analyses are available upon request. If you believe foodDB data would be of value to your research, please get in touch with the authors via email. Use of foodDB data is only possible for non-commercial purposes.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.