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Measurement grid superimposed over food plate: Link to photo information

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The New, Improved and Integrated Food Survey

By Judy McBride
March 20, 2001

When the nationwide food survey begins in 2002, interviewers will be armed with new tools to ensure that their data collection accurately reflects what people eat in America.

In addition to the traditional measuring cups, spoons and rulers, interviewers will have a new Food Model Booklet full of scientifically designed, life-size pictures. These will help respondents better estimate the size of that slice of pizza, serving of french fries or glass of cola they consumed during the previous 24 hours. It's one result of three years of work by scientists in the Agricultural Research Service's Food Surveys Research Group in Beltsville, Md.

To put the servings in perspective, the researchers had a grid, wedges, circles and several amorphous mounds printed on transparent pages that overlie a full-size dinner plate straddled by a full-size knife. The different-sized mounds—for estimating foods ranging from a dollop of whipped cream to a heap of spaghetti—appear to have depth.

The researchers also expanded and improved the method of questioning respondents to help them remember forgotten foods—nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, sweets, snacks, breads and other easily overlooked foods. This new Multiple Pass Method has a number of built-in cues to help jog the memory.

In two pilot studies, respondents recalled eating more foods than were reported by their counterparts in the last survey, according to research leader Alanna Moshfegh. In one study, they reported 300 more calories, on average. To further ensure accuracy, the survey research group automated the whole interview, computerizing questions, prompts, and details about the food and how it was prepared. The program contains 2,400 questions about foods with 21,000 possible answers.

The USDA nationwide food survey is being integrated with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—better known as NHANES—which is directed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. That means respondents will give their food intakes and also receive a comprehensive physical exam in NHANES' mobile exam centers.

The Agricultural Research Service is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Alanna Moshfegh, ARS Food Surveys Research Group, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-0170, fax (301) 504-0376,