New Data Linkages Provide Healthfulness Measures for American Grocery Store Sales

Newly established links between retail food sales data and USDA nutrition databases now allow researchers to study the healthfulness and composition of American food sales. For over a decade, ERS has purchased and analyzed proprietary data on household food purchases and retail food sales from IRI, a market research company. These data allow for analyses of dollar sales and quantities purchased, but provide an incomplete look at nutritional quality. Although the IRI data provide information on the nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts label for some packaged foods, they lack information on other nutrients and the nutritional profiles of unpackaged food, such as produce items. In addition, the data do not allow for a more detailed compositional analysis, such as determining the amount of vegetables in frozen pizzas or the amount of chicken in chicken pot pies.

To expand the use of the IRI data for research on the healthfulness of American retail food purchases, ERS researchers and their USDA colleagues recently created a crosswalk that links the more than 359,000 food products in the IRI data to several thousand foods in a series of USDA nutrition databases. This effort is part of a new cross-agency priority in the President’s Management Agenda to leverage data as a strategic asset. The USDA databases quantify amounts of nutrients (beyond the Nutrition Facts label) and the number of servings of major food groups contained in about 15,000 food items. The food items in the USDA databases include ingredients, such as flour, pasta, and raw seafood; unpackaged items like fresh apples and cauliflower; and food dishes, such as lasagna and pizza. ERS researchers used the linked data to score the healthfulness of the foods sold at grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other retailers and found substantial room for improvement.

ERS researchers scored nutritional quality using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) developed by the National Cancer Institute and USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. This index summarizes how well a set of foods conforms to the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The highest possible score is 100, indicating conformance to Federal recommendations for 13 dietary components. For the nine adequacy components that make up a healthy diet, a high score indicates Americans are purchasing sufficient amount of foods in these food groups. A high score among the four components that nutritionists advise to consume in moderation indicates Americans are keeping purchases of foods containing these components in check.

In total, retail food sales in 2013 scored 55 out of a maximum possible score of 100. Among the adequacy components, scores were highest for total protein (95 percent of the maximum possible score for total protein), seafood and plant proteins (86 percent), and whole fruit (85 percent). On the other hand, scores for whole grains, greens and beans, and dairy components were each below 50 percent of their maximum possible scores. For the moderation components (refined grains, sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats), the scores indicate overall U.S. food sales are not well aligned with key recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines, particularly with regard to sodium and added sugars.

Bar chart showing the percent of maximum possible Healthy Eating Index score for total retail food sales and for the 13 Healthy Eating Index components