Nutrition on the Internet

Nutrition & Food Science

ISSN: 0034-6659

Article publication date: 1 February 1999



Stephen Fallows, D. (1999), "Nutrition on the Internet", Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 99 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited

Nutrition on the Internet


This series of articles has an established alternation of articles on a theme and a "mixed bag". It is the turn of the themed article and for this issue I will take this approach a step further and will focus on just a single (but very extensive) web site.

The site chosen for this special attention is that of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). FAO was founded in 1945 with the following mandate:

  • to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living;

  • to improve agricultural productivity;

  • to better the conditions of ruralpopulations.

Today, FAO is the largest of the United Nations autonomous agencies with 174 Member Nations. The organisation has a professional staff of over 1,500 and an annual budget of $650 million (and in addition, FAO-assisted projects attract more than $3,000 million per year from Member Nations and other donors.

The work of FAO ranges very widely into all aspects of food production and consumption, from (for instance) the promotion of sustainable agricultural practice to ensure food security for all, to (for example) the establishment of internationally recognised food standards.

The functions of FAO can be interpreted within the following headings:

  • development assistance;

  • information and support services;

  • advice to governments;

  • the provision of a neutral forum for international cooperation.

FAO has taken the view that a very extensive web presence is a particularly appropriate method of undertaking these functions since, by this method, up-to-date information can be provided to interested persons world-wide at minimal cost.

Web site review

The opening "home page" of the FAO web site appears to be somewhat cluttered with a couple of dozen options to choose from ­ however, it serves its purpose and quickly indicates the range of material available.

The links from this page can be grouped as follows:

  • To broad categories of activity (such as agriculture, economics, fisheries, forestry, nutrition, sustainable development).

  • To operational matters (such as partnership programmes, technical cooperation, legal matters, employment opportunities).

  • To the FAO databases.

  • To FAO publications.

  • To news items (including FAO press releases).

  • To event-specific information.

  • To the Codex Alimentarius and the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme.

  • To other United Nations organisations.

In addition, there is a search facility.

I do not intend to follow all the myriad potential links which lead out from the home page; rather I will report on a few illustrative examples.


Following the nutrition link leads to further links relating to nutrition and food quality which may be broadly described as follows:

  • A range of publications which are available on-line and may be down-loaded. As an illustration, the major new items made available during June 1998 were:

    • Food Quality and Safety Systems ­ a training manual on food hygiene and the HACCP system;

    • Carbohydrates in Human Nutrition ­ report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation.

  • Information on future activities such as the (at time of writing) forthcoming Expert Consultation to Revise the FAO/WHO Vitamin and Mineral Requirements for Humans which will bring together an international expert group in Bangkok from 21-30 September 1998.

  • General descriptions of the various themes into which the nutrition-related work programme is organised:

    • nutrition education;

    • community nutrition;

    • food composition;

    • nutrition assessment.


The web site includes access to a number of databases:

  • FAOSTAT is the largest database; this is an on-line database of over 1 million entries covering international statistics on a country-by-country and year-by-year basis on the following:

    • production;

    • trade;

    • food balance sheets;

    • food aid shipments;

    • fertiliser and pesticides;

    • land use and irrigation;

    • forest products;

    • population;

    • agricultural machinery.

    The database also provides crude estimates of energy availability on a per capita basis for named countries or broader regions.

    A typical exploration of the database is undertaken by selecting a country (or group or category of countries ­ such as "Africa" or "Asia developing") and a particular year (data are available for up to 1996). The outcome of such an exploration is a report giving a detailed food balance sheet of domestic supplies and domestic utilisation for all classes of food commodity.

  • MediaBase is an archive of photographic images and diagrams. The pictures are supported by text which provides information which describes the circumstances and location. FAO is currently adding to this database with the aim of being able to offer (unfortunately for purchase) the many thousands of photographs in the FAO Photo Library.

    Exploration of this archive is undertaken by choosing a topic from a menu of options; this can be restricted, for example, by location (to yield, for example, a search for pictures relating to fisheries, Asia). The outcome of the search is a series of small "thumbnail" pictures with brief captioning. A further click on any picture leads to a larger version and more detailed information.

    The range of materials included reflects FAO's long-term involvement in the development of sustainable food production and supplies in the less developed areas of the world.

  • Database of maximum permitted residue limits in foods. This database has been constructed in conjunction with the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (see later).


At the time of writing this review the issue which dominates world attention with respect to agricultural production and, hence, food supply is the global effects of the climatic changes resulting from El Niño. The web site discusses FAO's work to lessen the impact of this natural phenomenon.

A second issue which is addressed (at this time) is the likely impact on food production and purchase (and hence on, nutrition) of the major economic crises which have hit several of the South East Asian states during 1998.


Clearly the events featured will vary from time-to-time. The key event at the time of writing is "Telefood '98" which has the theme of "Women feed the world".

Since 1981, 16 October has been recognised as World Food Day. For 1998, a global televised event "Telefood '98" is being organised. This event takes place on 16-18 October 1998 and is dedicated to creating public awareness of world hunger and to mobilising resources to provide lasting solutions. The web site describes the plans in place, lists the celebrity supporters and provides information on projects funded from "Telefood '97" which was the first in this series of events.

Codex Alimentarius

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was established in the early 1960s to initiate a programme of activities (the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme) designed to remove those barriers to international trade in foods which derive from differences in national food standards. The Codex Alimentarius itself is a collection of internationally recognised food standards which have served as the basis of national legislation in this area throughout the world including by the European Union and hence by the UK.

The activities of the Codex Alimentarius Commission include the work of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA); this group provides detailed scientific assessments of the safety of food additives and food contaminants (such as residues of veterinary drugs or pesticide) which are internationally respected.

The web site includes the texts of documents relating to the procedures and priorities which shape the operation of the Commission, agendas of forthcoming meetings, (downloadable) reports of meetings and perhaps most interesting a database of the established standards.

Concluding comment

In preparing this article, I have reported on just a small fraction of the material on the FAO web site. The site contains information which will be of relevance to professionals and students from a wide range of disciplines. The information is presented in a range of styles from the merely descriptive through to databases giving considerable statistical or technical detail.

The entire FAO web site is trilingual (English, French and Spanish).

The URL for the FAO web site is

All the areas described in this article (and many others) may be reached from the above URL.

If you have identified a web site likely to be of interest to readers of Nutrition & Food Science please contact the author of this series of articles as follows: by e-mail to; by fax to 01234 766926 or 01582 743237; by post at the University of Luton.

Dr Stephen FallowsReader in Educational Development,University of Luton

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