One of the main routes of human exposure to contaminants is through food. To assess the health impact, it is necessary to determine the levels of contaminants in foods and evaluate the exposure estimates. Many countries regularly conduct total diet studies as a method of assessing the exposure of the population to various contaminants present in foods. It is a comprehensive approach and is based on determination of contaminants in foods. The risk assessment is done by taking into account the actual quantity consumed by specific age–sex groups of a population. The approach has developed through multiple changes since its inception. This article aims to review and summarize the changes that have occurred in different countries. Some of the attempts include the addition of analytes and the use of sophisticated instrumentation in conjunction with better extraction and types of food commodities. The present analytical methods have reduced the limits of detection for many analytes in many food matrices, making this approach much more accurate and sensitive. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.