Selection of Inspirational Foods

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is building global capacity to evaluate the composition of the planet's edible biodiversity. To start the process, a Working Group of global experts nominated an inspiring planetary cornucopia based on the foods’ contribution to the human diet, cultural relevance, geographic, functional and nutritional diversity, and innovation potential.

An enormous diversity of foods contributes to the human diet, and in turn to nutrition security and human wellbeing. There are over 30,000 edible species; this biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security and enhancing the resilience of ecosystems and communities. However, the homogenization of our food supply has contributed to almost half of our caloric intake coming from just three sources: rice, corn, and wheat.  Each edible species is comprised of thousands of types of known and unknown biomolecules. However, remarkably little is known about the comprehensive biomolecular composition of what we eat. 

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is building global capacity to evaluate the composition of the planet’s edible biodiversity. To start the process and ensure inclusivity, the PTFI established a Working Group of global experts to nominate a list of inspiring foods to represent a planetary cornucopia, based on the foods’ contribution to the human diet, cultural relevance, geographic, functional and nutritional diversity, and innovation potential.

A core component of this selection process involved engagement with stakeholders in every region of the globe to nominate a rich cadre of geographically and culturally specific foods. Surveys were distributed through key regional partners to include the input of farmers, women’s groups, and indigenous groups.

Our initial Inspirational List of Foods includes 1,650 foods of which 1,254 originate from vascular plant species, 376 from animal species, 18 from fungal species, 1 lichen, and 1 from bacterial species. The five most-prolific food groups in the list are fruits (representing 30% of the list), vegetables (25%), nuts and seeds (8%), land animal products (8%) and aquatic animal products (7%). 

Nearly one-third of the foods (542) were nominated from multiple sources, indicating some degree of consensus among experts on their importance. Nearly two-thirds of the foods (1108), however, were single-sourced, indicating that many existing lists are neither comprehensive nor representative of the criteria for the bioculturally-relevant foods established in this study. Of these, 22% (362) are reported in the food nutrient profile database of the United States Department of Agriculture FoodData Central and approximately 24% (405) in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO’s) nutrient databases, further reinforcing the knowledge gap of our scientific understanding of the human diet’s vast composition.

Following are among the key dimensions that were considered in developing the Inspirational Food List:

  • Biology: Where is the origin of a food in the phylogenetic tree? We seek to include as wide a spectrum of organisms across phylogenetic diversity, including bacteria, yeast, mold, algae, insects, plants, animals, and everything within.
  • Tissue: What part of organisms are used for food? We seek to capture the diversity of organism parts that are explicitly used for food including seeds, nuts, fruits, leaves, roots, eggs, muscles, etc.
  • Geography: Where do foods originate and where do they thrive? We seek to cover a wide geography of native origins of foods that established conspicuous success after migration and/or transplantation to other regions of the globe. For example, wheat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, poultry, tilapia, and yeast are now global crops/commodities: why?
  • Consumers: Who are specific foods targeted to? We seek to understand what and why foods are explicitly targeted to specific populations such as babies and infants, weaning, adolescents, pregnant and lactating mothers, men, women, young, old, ill, and well.
  • Processing: How are foods treated after harvest? A key goal of the PTFI is to understand the effects of processing on food biomolecular composition. We thus need to recognize the long history of processing of agricultural and wild commodities from wild to into variably fermented and cooked
  • Domestication: How has human intervention modified organisms?  We aim to capture the influence of human activity on the genetic evolution of foods including trait-based selection of organisms 
  • Derivation and Formulation: How is a food used? We seek to analyze food composition based on the way a food is consumed, whether whole or as a processed derived ingredient.
  • Proportional Abundance: Which foods are the center of a meal and which are tiny fractions that are frequently consumed? We seek to analyze foods that represent the breadth and depth within consumption patterns. 
  • Affordability: Which foods are luxury and which are staples? In order to enhance food access, we seek to understand the relationship of food composition with cost in order to support decision-makers with data on how to best find nutrient sources to meet dietary and health needs. 
  • Frequency: Which foods are consumed on a regular basis and which are associated with rare festive events, life transitions, spiritual celebrations? The PTFI will provide data on a vast diversity of foods based on the ways they are used in diets, from dietary staples to underutilized crops and celebration foods. foods that have a history of distinct value to societies beyond their nutritional value.
  • Complementarity: Which foods are historically consumed as ensembles? Ultimately, we consume complex diets and not individual foods or food components. Thus, we seek to understand the foods that make up diverse diets including those that have a history of use as being consumed for their complementary and synergistic value such as  grains and yeast, milk and lactobacillus, corn and beans, etc.