A Periodic Table of Food for better health globally

University of Adelaide researchers are contributing to a global effort to quantify the makeup of the world’s food supply, enabling data-driven solutions to human and planetary health challenges such as biodiversity loss, climate change and malnutrition.

Vegetables at a food market

Photo credit: Jacopo Maia

The Period Table of Food Initiative (PTFI) is led by nine Centres of Excellence around the world, all collaborating on the creation of standardised tools, data and training to catalogue the biomolecular composition of the world’s food supply.

In Australia, the PTFI Centre of Excellence has been established by the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute (EI), with its Director, Professor Andrew Lowe, describing the initiative as crucial to the improvement of human and planetary health.

“Despite the advances in measuring food composition to date, we still don’t have a complete picture of what is in the food we grow and eat, and research indicates there are thousands of unknown components in food,” said Professor Lowe.

“With standardised, comprehensive and robust food composition data available in an open-access platform as a global public resource, innovative educational offerings will be available to agriculture, health and nutrition stakeholders.”

Key to the PTFI’s effectiveness is its global reach, with the data capturing the particularities of several regions around the world.

“The increasingly homogenous nature of global food systems has contributed to malnutrition and the degradation of ecosystems at a global scale,” said Professor Lowe.

“These systems focus too much on producing affordable staples for dietary energy, without considering the diversity of foods which could supply these nutrients.

“A greater understanding of biomolecular composition of foods will enable stakeholders to make data-driven decisions which harness the biodiversity and nutritional benefits of local food, including those that have been neglected and underutilised.”

The Australian Centre of Excellence will primarily focus on the biomolecular composition of Australian foods.

Environment Institute Director, Professor Andy Lowe

Environment Institute Director, Professor Andy Lowe

Most importantly, the knowledge generated through the PTFI will be practical, and applicable to Australia and the world.

“We will focus on climate resilience of Australian food crops compared to introduced crops,” said Professor Lowe.

“The PTFI and EI are both committed to providing innovative data-driven and actionable outcomes to complex global environmental challenges to improve environmental and human health. We both aim to achieve this through the development of cross-institutional, local, and international collaborations.”

Australia’s PTFI Centre of Excellence will be staffed by researchers from the Environment Institute, Waite Research Institute, Adelaide Analytical, Adelaide Microscopy and Mawson Analytical Spectrometry Services, and other relevant national partners.

Professor Lowe and his team will also establish a stakeholder advisory network to provide guidance on the Australian food species lists, taking into account Access-and-Benefit Sharing considerations.

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will launch its foundational resources for the global research community in April 2024. For more information on the Initiative, visit the website.

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