The Mouth-Watering World Of NIST Standard Foods

The National Institute Of Standards and Technology was founded on March 3, 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, taking on its current moniker in 1988. The organisation is charged by the government with ensuring the uniformity of weights and measures across the United States, and generally helping out industry, academia and other users wherever some kind of overarching standard is required.

One of the primary jobs of NIST is the production and sale of Standard Reference Materials, or SRMs. These cover a huge variety of applications, from steel samples to concrete and geological materials like clay. However, there are also edible SRMS, too. Yes, you can purchase yourself a jar of NIST Standard Peanut Butter, though you might find the price uncompetitive with the varieties at your local supermarket. Let’s dive into why these “standard” foods exist, and see what’s available from the shelves of our favourite national standards institute.

Know Thine Measurements

NIST produce approximately 1300 different Standard Reference Materials, with 45 of those being in the Food and Beverage category. They’re most famous for their peanut butter, which got attention online when a photo of Dr. Carolyn Burdette testing samples of the material went viral. The range of standards available is vast, though largely unpalatable, with such items as Meat Homogenate and Infant/Adult Nutritional Powder available.

A selection of various NIST Standard Reference Materials from the Food and Beverage category.

It’s fun to think about a government organisation creating a “standard” peanut butter to rule them all, one neither better nor worse than one could expect a peanut butter to be. However, these standards are not intended to be a guide on how manufacturers should craft their foods. Instead, the materials are intended for use as calibration standards.

Manufacturers need to verify the nutritional content of their foods, and also need to verify that they’re safe and free of dangerous contaminants. This requires the use of a variety of complex tests. In order to verify that the results of these tests are valid, it’s necessary to have a known standard material on hand to check with. For example, if you run a test on NIST’s standard apple juice, and your measured levels for arsenic match the documented values, you can be relatively certain that when you measure your own company’s product, the numbers you get are valid.

Some of the standards are more familiar than others. Baby Food Composite is fairly straightforward; Typical Diet is a material with broader testing applications.

While the NIST standards could technically be considered edible, they’re not intended to be ingested, and prices are orders of magnitude higher than what you’d pay at your local store. A 3-pack of standard peanut butter will set you back $881 before shipping, while five bars of baking chocolate will cost you the same. Suffice to say, NIST aren’t known for handing out holiday promo codes, either. If we had to cater a picnic with nothing but SRMs, we’d lean on the milk & egg powders along with flour samples to bake a nice standard loaf of bread, topped with either oyster tissue (a steal at $672 for 25 grams), bovine liver, or perhaps the slurried spinach for those wanting a vegetarian option.

Overall, these reference materials serve an important role in ensuring the quality of the foods and beverages we consume every day. Combined with the formal, bleak aesthetic of their label designs, they also make an excellent gag prop for your refrigerator, albeit at great cost. NIST’s work makes life easier for manufacturers, and helps produce better products for consumers. Thus, the enigmatic Standard Reference Materials play an highly important role in the food and beverage industry.

48 thoughts on “The Mouth-Watering World Of NIST Standard Foods

  1. How did you miss mentioning the ANSI standard pizza and the ISO cup of tea ?

    Though I’m intrigued about how these are prepared now, whether they have to have someone with a pair of tweezers counting out and adding the requisite number of rodent hairs and cockroach legs permitted by law.

        1. Like, way years back… my friend and I relabeled a box of Little Debbie nutty bars as “Brand X” nutty bars and went out on the street to give out samples…

          “Brand-X nutty bars!! They are not made by Satan!”.

          I think we got like one person to try them.

      1. It’s like someone at KFC figured, “Hmm, I know that originally we were joking about that console thing, but it’s 2020 and apparently literally anything is possible, so why not?”

  2. “A 3-pack of standard peanut butter will set you back $881 before shipping”. $900 for standard peanut butter!? Guess I’ll have to stick to substandard peanut butter, as usual. :'(

    1. Generally the standards are tested by several widely different methods, and/or with the same kind of instrument by different manufacturers. When all methods give results that are not significantly different from one another, and all determinate errors have been removed or compensated for, it’s a good indication that the concentration of those particular components is accurate.

      Without such standards, a manufacturer could with impunity adulterate apple juice with sugar water, or add cheap ground sunflower seeds to peanut butter.

      It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the data sheet that comes with a standard material, but I think it includes a description of methods/techniques to use for best results.

      1. no, these standards do not prevent adding sweetened water to apple juice or sunflower seeds to peanut butter. Those are prevented by food labelling laws.

        These standard foods – as the article says – are used to calibrate test equipment.

      2. Standard peanut butter with only peanuts from Trader Joe’s has a much better price whether it is creamy or
        or with more nut pieces(legumes). The adulterated products with added sugar and salt are there as well.

        As for cheaper sunflower seeds, they are quite delicious in chocolate covered form as sunflower seed butter.

  3. I suspect the cost breakdown goes something like:
    -$10-20 for some carefully prepared peanut butter
    -$860 for a detailed chemical analysis of the peanut butter to prove it’s in spec.

    My job involves gettting water samples and a general metals suite analysis usually runs about $500 per sample, so $880 for three samples sounds like a bargain!

  4. “If we had to cater a picnic with nothing but SRMs, we’d lean on the milk & egg powders along with flour samples to bake a nice standard loaf of bread”

    You’d be making cake.
    Bread is flour, water, salt and yeast.
    Although I am reading In defense of Food by Michael Pollan at the moment and learned that US supermarket bread may have 50+ ingredients.

      1. You could make bread without salt, but it tastes like nothing. Besides that the salt helps the dough rise, helps form a crispy crust and traps water, which help keep the bread longer.

  5. I recall when I last left off in pharma… USP/NF pharmacopeial forum was reviewing cannabis. Looks like NIST got on the bandwagon to an extent.

    NIST is awesome to work with. USP/NF is a little more concerning since reminds me of the J.D. and M.D. industry. The good thing is at least companies are dedicated to Lean Six Sigma initiatives and was awesome to led that on.

    Scarier when not, especially reading into not much relating to cGNP’s compared to cGMP’s. Looks like those haven’t advanced. Bio-equivalent testing for bio-pharmaceuticals was another yikes concern a decade ago or so.

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