Research Questions and Data Needs

At the national level, information on food use and dietary intake is needed for economic and agricultural policy decision making. For policy makers to advise on food production, food imports, pricing of staple foods, and other factors that affect food availability, they require information on the production, inflow, and outflow of food commodities and products at the national level. Most countries use food balance sheets to measure these flows, and total available nutrients are estimated in relation to the size and composition of the population. These surveys measure overall national food production, imports, and available food stocks, and subtract exports, food used for animals rather than humans, and losses that occur during production, storage, and manufacturing. The FAO has compiled food balance sheets for many countries since 1949, thus allowing useful intercountry comparisons of food availability. However, the aggregate information obtained with food balance sheets does not allow consideration of food distribution within a country and does not quantify food intake or needs of subgroups of the population.

Most countries need more information on household level food use to target food nutrition policies toward groups at need. Household food surveys capture the amounts and types of food that enter a household, and per capita intake equivalents are calculated by dividing the total nutrients available in the household from the edible portion of entering foods by the numbers of household members, weighted by specific age and sex. With information on the average per capita intake of specific households, it is possible to consider groups at risk of inadequate intake of energy or of specific macro-or micronutrients. For example, these surveys may highlight rural-urban differences, inland-coastal differences, differences by socioeconomic strata, and so on. Such surveys provide critical information within countries for the development and targeting of economic, agricultural, and nutritional policies specific to regions or other subgroups of the population.

Table 1 Advantages and disadvantages of different types of dietary survey


Survey type




Food balance sheets


Crude estimate; no consideration of wastage; does not allow disaggregation to sublevels


Food account method


Does not account for food consumed away from home, inventories or wastage

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