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Dining table à la Brasileira

A laboratories network analyzes the composition of 500 foods that integrate into the national menu

MIGUEL BOYAYANBanana-maçã, banana-prata, banana-nanica… which Brazilian does not know these varieties, doesn’t he have his favorites? Now it is possible to know them even better, with the publication of the Brazilian Table of Food Composition (TACO in the Portuguese acronym) by the Studies and Research into Food Center (NEPA) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

The TACO brings the composition in nutrients of 500 foods, between natural and industrialized products. Within the six types of banana that integrate into the table, that of the terra-banana is the one with the most calories, whilst the nanica-banana is the richest in potassium. The banana-maçã is wanting in iron, compared to the others. Also presented in tabular form are some preparations of typical Brazilian dishes, such as acarajé and baião-de-dois.

“The initiative is unique in Latin America”, says Jaime Amaya-Farfán, from NEPA. Latin American nutritionists usually use a table from the United States, from Europe or a combination of both, he explained. The TACO is more adequate for local use, since it was produced starting from the analysis of Brazilian foods. The same products can have different nutritional compositions depending upon the origin, above all in terms of minerals and vitamins. As well as this, the Brazilian table contains typical food of our region, such as cupuaçu, cashew, edible nighshade (Solanum gilo), and acerola, which have ten times more vitamin C than the same weight in oranges. This is without speaking of the six bananas – the North American table brings only one type.

Multiple use
The TACO receives funding from the ministries of Social Development and Combating Hunger (MDS) and Health (MS). The table will be distributed to health professionals – above all to nutritionists, doctors and educators. Lílian Cuppari, from the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), explained that the table is essential for various public health actions. It will permit studies on food consumption in the country, starting from which risk factors for diseases or situations of malnutrition can be evaluated. Also it will make it possible to carry out epidemiological studies and the planning of feeding. In the clinical area, the detailed knowledge of the composition of foods is essential for the provision of diets in cases of illness that demand a modification in food.

Amaya-Farfán explained that the table attends to a complaint from Brazilian nutritionists, who up until now had no way of preparing balanced diets in a precise manner. This is important for measures with wide impact in the entire country, such as the planning of public school meals.
The food industry also takes into account the composition of the food in the preparation of their products. For this reason, the research and development sectors of the food producers need to have their hands on a data bank that corresponds to local reality.

To know the nutritional values of non-processed foods could also help to guide agriculture planting. The evaluation of the nutritional state of the population and of the composition of planted foods provides relevant information about the social value of agricultural production that could be taken into consideration by agronomists. A plantation of bean, for example, could be adapted to the needs of the people of a determined region in the case where a crop is chosen with more nutritional properties – the TACO brings seven varieties of beans. But this work of agricultural counseling, possible with the divulgence of the table, will remain the responsibility of independent initiatives. “It’s the degree of social conscience of the farmer that will determine the success of this initiative”, alerts Amaya-Farfán.

For the official launch on the 30th of June, only 300 examples were printed of a preliminary version of the TACO. According to researcher Amaya-Farfán, the team’s initial commitment  was to deliver the completed table in January of this year, but data was lacking on 45 foods and the definite print run was postponed. This delay will damage the distribution of the integral version of the printed table as it is prohibited during an election period to distribute material with the federal government’s name. In the first instance, therefore, the TACO will be available only at the portal of the Ministry of Health via the  internet (

The TACO is not the only one of its genre. The Pharmaceutical Sciences School  of the University of São Paulo (USP), in partnership with the Brazilian Network of Food Composition Data (Brasilfoods), during 1998 launched the Brazilian Table of Food Composition: the TBCA-USP, which is currently in its second edition of 2004.

What turned the TACO into a matchless initiative are the wide sample range and the unified and rigorous method of analysis. Whilst the TBCA-USP is fed by data sent in by independent researchers, the NEPA group made use of a standardized methodology and selected qualified laboratories to participate in the elaboration of the TACO by way of Cooperative Inter-Laboratory Studies (EIC). “Few laboratories had been prepared, and for this reason a lot of planning time was needed”, explains Amaya-Farfán. Initiated in 1996, the project consumed three years to set up a complete action plan, from collection to analysis, and to reach an understanding between the laboratories.

MIGUEL BOYAYANThe EICs will consist of an analysis made by various selected laboratories using certified and standardized materials. A major investment was necessary, since these materials, with guaranteed uniform composition, need to be imported from specialist institutes in the United States and Europe. In the opinion of Amaya-Farfán, some laboratories present good performance in the analysis of certain compounds but not in others. Initially 16 laboratories were tested, none of which was capable of executing well all of the analyses. After a second EIC, only six laboratories were selected to participate in the project – each one only for those nutrients that they had quantified with greater precision. All of this rigor guarantees the trustworthiness of the data published in the table.

Industrialized foods from nine major cities of the country’s five regions were analyzed. For each type of food, the researchers selected three to five of the most consumed brands. The samples were then homogenized and examined in conjunction, in such a manner that values that appear in the TACO represent average values. The team collected samples of products of vegetal and animal origin from the major food distributors in the States of Sao Paulo and Santa Catarina. The researchers had so hoped to obtain foods consumed in other regions, in spite of having acquired them in major centers.

Actually the fifth phase in the production of the table is taking place, which intends to analyze a new lot of one hundred foods. Also the content of vitamin A of fruits and vegetables, already included in the current table, will be evaluated as well as the level of amino acids of the regional foods. In this stage, however, the budget will only permit work with the already selected laboratories. Starting from the sixth phase, the plan is to sound out a greater number of partnerships. For this to happen the project will have the help of the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), which has opened up on its site space for the registration of laboratories.

A deficiency in the current version of the TACO is not to include organic foods. “Evaluations made by other teams point out that this type of food has a greater content of nutrients”, says Amaya-Farfán. Indeed, he affirmed that the analysis of organic foods is not a current priority, since its production is as yet limited. “At this moment field technology doesn’t allow for the production of organics with the same frequency of conventional food”, he explains. The production of the same quantity of organic greens and vegetables demands a planted area of 30% to 60% greater than that used in conventional agriculture. For this reason an increase in production is, for now, unrealistic and would generate an important impact on Brazilian biodiversity. “More research in this area of organic foods would be necessary in order to attain greater productivity”, he concludes.

The major Brazilian limitation, according to  Amaya-Farfán, is the non-existence of major laboratories capable of analyzing all of the nutrients of foods, as occurs in the United States. He explained that the American government invests US$ 10 million every four years in the elaboration of a new table, which can already totals 4,000 foods. Researcher Amaya-Farfán calculates that over the last ten years the Brazilian government has invested around R$ 3.5 million in the TACO project, sufficient only to cover expenses. “We need to invest in infrastructure”, he says.

In Brazil the laboratories participating in the production of the TACO belong to public entities, above all to universities, in which the researchers need to present high numbers of publications in scientific magazines. “Studies on the survey, description and analysis of foodstuffs do not interest scientific magazines”, underlines Amaya-Farfán. For this reason, this task does not attract university researchers, which obstructs its advance. “We’re making an awareness campaign directed towards the ministries of the federal government for the establishment of the TACO program”, says the researcher. According to him, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Development and Combating Hunger, along with Anvisa and the Financier of Studies and Projects have been made well aware of the project’s necessity. But, as yet, it is still not enough to create a permanent program of evaluation of foodstuffs.

The TACO’s next goals are to increase the number of regional foods and preparations, as well as the number of nutrients analyzed. The meat samples, for example, were only collected from major meat factories in the states of São Paulo and Santa Catarina, selected by their spread throughout the national territory. Nevertheless, the TACO team intends to increase the geo-political representation, so that it will be the greatest coverage possible. In order to reach other regions, it will be necessary to accredit local laboratories. The ideal is to separately analyze the foods from each region. “The cassava flour from Santa Catarina could have a level of minerals different from that produced in the State of Bahia”, exemplified the specialist from the NEPA.

The moment is opportune due to the current pandemic of obesity and the consequences that this should bring to health. Amaya-Farfán says that the population has never been so aware of the relationship between diet and health. “There’s a generalized desire towards food education”, he says. “For this reason, the TACO could have an important impact on improving the health of Brazilians.”

Experimental cooking

1. Weigh 2 kg of black-eyed-pea; 2 kg de white rice, type 1; 250 g of pork fat, in cubes. Cut up four onions (400 g), 25 cloves of garlic, (50 g) and fresh coriander (50 g).

Separate a soup spoonful of refined salt (35 g), three tea cups of curdled cheese, chopped up (300 g) and 10 liters of water.

2. Place the pork fat cubes in a large cooking pot and add in the onion, garlic, salt and black-eyed-pea. Add all of the water, bring to the boil and leave to cook on a medium flame for 40 minutes, stirring slowly.

3. Add in the rice and mix well. Leave to cook for a further 20 minutes or until the rice is al dente. Add in the cheese and mix delicately. Cover the pot and leave it to cool.

Each 100 grams contains:
69% water, 136 kcal, 6 g of protein,4 mg de cholesterol, 20 g of carbohydrate, 5.1 g of diet fiber, 1.1 g of ashes, 33 mg de calcium, 19 mg of magnesium, 0.3 g of manganese, 72 mg of phosphorus, 0.6 mg of iron, 93 mg of sodium, 157 mg of potassium, 0.08 mg of copper, 0.6 mg of zinc, 0.04 mg of thiamin, 0.04 mg of pyridoxine and 3 g of lipids (0.6 g saturated, 1 g mono-unsaturated and 1.5 g of poly-saturated)