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U.S. retail food sales do not align with Federal dietary recommendations

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Newly established links between retail food sales data and USDA nutrition databases now allow researchers to study the healthfulness of Americans’ purchases at retail stores. ERS researchers scored the healthfulness of retail food sales using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2015), a measure that summarizes how well a set of foods conforms to the recommendations in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, developed jointly by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. In the Healthy Eating Index, the maximum possible score is 100, indicating conformance to Federal recommendations for 13 dietary components encompassing food groups (fruit, dairy, whole grains) and dietary elements (added sugars, fatty acids, sodium). For the nine adequacy components that make up a healthy diet, a high score indicates Americans are purchasing a sufficient amount of foods in these 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, suggesting purchases are not well aligned with Federal dietary recommendations. Scores for whole grains, greens and beans, dairy, sodium, and added sugars were each below 50 percent of their maximum possible scores. This chart appears in the article “New Data Linkages Provide Healthfulness Measures for American Grocery Store Sales” from the June 2019 edition of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Nearly 9 in 10 U.S. households use their own car for their primary grocery shopping

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

ERS developed the Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey (FCBS) module of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to collect data on the dietary knowledge, attitudes, and habits of U.S. consumers. The ease and expense of travelling to grocery stores could affect the variety of perishable foods eaten at home or the choice to prepare a meal at home or dine out. According to 2015-16 FCBS module data, 88.3 percent of households usually drove their own cars to the stores where they did most of their grocery shopping. However, this figure masked differences by family income: While 93.4 percent of households with incomes above 185 percent of Federal poverty guidelines usually drove their own cars to do most of their grocery shopping, the percentage of households below 130 percent of poverty guidelines that usually used this mode of transportation was 78.4 percent. The survey found that 6.7 percent of households usually relied on someone else’s car when traveling to the store where they primarily shopped for groceries; only 3.8 percent usually walked, rode a bicycle, or used public transit. The remaining households (1.2 percent) had another or no usual mode of travel. More information from the FCBS can be found in the Food Consumption & Demand topic page on the ERS website.

American adults consumed ready-to-eat foods more often in 2015–16 than in 2007–08

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey (FCBS) module, developed by ERS, has been part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey since 2007. FCBS questions are designed to collect data on U.S. consumers’ dietary knowledge, attitudes, and habits, including their consumption of frozen meals and “ready-to-eat” foods such as salads, soups, chicken, sandwiches, and cooked vegetables from the salad bars and deli counters of grocery stores. Preparing food at home can be a time-intensive activity, and some American adults turn to prepared foods offered in grocery stores when faced with time constraints. ERS researchers used FCBS data to examine changes between 2007–08 and 2015–16 in the frequency of eating grocery-store-prepared dishes and frozen meals and pizzas. Although the average number of times Americans age 20 and older reported consuming frozen meals or pizzas in the past month was similar in both time periods, average past-month consumption of ready-to-eat foods increased by about 26 percent, from 1.9 times in 2007–08 to 2.4 times in 2015–16. Many grocery stores have expanded their ready-to-eat options in recent years. More information from the FCBS can be found in the Food Consumption & Demand topic page on the ERS website.

Adults who use restaurant nutrition information consume fewer calories per day than similar adults who do not use the information

Friday, March 22, 2019

As part of the Federal Government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), respondents are asked whether they see nutrition or health information on fast-food and full-service restaurant menus. If the answer is “yes,” respondents are also asked whether they use that information to decide which foods to buy. ERS researchers compared daily calorie intakes of adults who saw and used the menu information with intakes of adults who noticed the information but chose not to use it. Because information users may differ from nonusers in other ways, ERS researchers also adjusted intakes for differences in socio-demographic characteristics and interview-related factors (e.g., whether intake occurred on a weekday or weekend). Even after accounting for such differences, ERS analysis of NHANES data from 2007–14 reveals that restaurant menu label users consumed 167–180 fewer calories per day than nonusers consumed—a calorie intake gap that is 8 to 9 percent of a 2,000-calorie reference diet. This chart appears in “New National Menu Labeling Provides Information Consumers Can Use To Help Manage Their Calorie Intake” in the October 2018 issue of the ERS Amber Waves magazine.

Among people who have heard of MyPlate, over one-third of them try to follow the guide’s recommendations

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ERS developed the Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey (FCBS) module, which, starting in 2007, has been part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. FCBS collects data on U.S. consumers’ dietary knowledge, attitudes, and habits, including their awareness and use of USDA’s educational MyPlate graphic. ERS researchers used FCBS data to estimate the share of Americans who were aware of MyPlate and used it as a guide to support healthy eating patterns. In 2015–16, 26 percent of Americans age 16 and older reported that they had heard of MyPlate. This is a 6-percentage point increase from 2013–14, when 20 percent reported being aware of MyPlate. Among those who had heard of MyPlate in 2015–16, more than one-third of them (35 percent) indicated that they had tried to follow its recommendations—the same share as in 2013–14. Used in nutrition education and displayed on some food packaging, MyPlate depicts a place setting (with a plate and glass) divided into five basic food groups whose sizes correspond to suggested daily intake proportions. MyPlate replaced MyPyramid in June 2011. More information from FCBS can be found in the Food Consumption & Demand topic page on the ERS website, updated February 14, 2019.

Declines in fat content have been largest for home-prepared food

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A recent ERS analysis found that over the last 35 years, the percent of calories coming from fat in at-home foods consumed by Americans declined more than the fat content of away-from-home foods. (At-home foods are foods purchased from supermarkets and other retailers; away-from-home foods are obtained from restaurants, schools, vending machines, sports venues, and other away-from-home sources.) The fat content of at-home foods fell from 41.0 percent of calories in 1977-78 to 32.1 percent in 2011-14. Over the same period, the fat content of away-from-home foods dropped less sharply from 41.2 to 37.4 percent. Changes in fat content can occur because of different choices being made by consumers, changes in product formulations, or both. Changes in fat content varied among the away-from-home sources. The fat content of fast food changed little, while the fat content of foods from restaurants with wait staff declined from 46.1 to 37.1 percent. The fat content of school meals fell to a level similar to that of food at home. School food consists primarily of meals served as a part of USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, which are required to meet Federal nutrition standards. This chart appears in “Both At Home and Away, Americans Are Choosing More Lower Fat Foods Than They Did 35 Years Ago” in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, October 2018.

Nutritional quality of food store purchases increases with nutrition information use

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A recent ERS study used data from USDA’s 2012-13 National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) to explore whether consumers who say they are familiar with or use nutrition information (nutrition information users) actually make healthier food choices. Researchers used answers from FoodAPS’s primary respondents to nine questions to classify households into low, medium, and high users of nutrition information. A positive relationship was found between nutrition information use and the nutritional quality of purchases from grocery and other food stores (food at home). However, for the average FoodAPS respondent, when the primary respondent is a high user of nutrition information, the nutritional quality of food purchased from fast-food places, full-service restaurants, and other food-away-from-home sources did not vary significantly from that of food purchased from these same food sources when the primary respondent is a low user of nutrition information. This finding is consistent with a possible “indulgence effect” wherein consumers—when eating out—often indulge themselves by selecting less healthy treats than they might when cooking meals at home. This chart appears in "Use of Nutrition Information and the Food Healthfulness Gap" in the May 2018 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Households that buy fruits and vegetables directly from farmers tend to possess health-oriented attitudes and behaviors

Monday, March 5, 2018

A recent ERS study analyzed spending on fruits and vegetables by the 4,826 households that participated in USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS). Among these households, 170 bought some of their fruits and vegetables directly from farmers at roadside stands, farmers’ markets, or other direct-to-consumer (DTC) outlets during their week of participation in the survey. Another 3,388 households bought fruits and vegetables exclusively at nondirect food stores. The researchers found that purchasing fruits and vegetables at a DTC outlet was positively associated with several healthy practices. For example, people buying fruits and vegetables directly from farmers were more likely to have a vegetable garden (45 versus 25 percent of non-DTC shoppers), to be aware of USDA’s MyPlate campaign to promote Federal dietary guidance, and to search the internet for information on healthy eating. Households that bought fruits and vegetables directly from farmers were also more likely to rate the healthfulness of their diets as excellent or very good. This chart appears in the ERS report, The Relationship Between Patronizing Direct-to-Consumer Outlets and a Household’s Demand for Fruits and Vegetables, January 2018.

Americans purchase almost two-thirds of their calories from large grocery stores

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Americans acquire food from many sources—supermarkets, convenience stores, fast food outlets, and more. But in practice, large grocery stores dominate. A recent ERS analysis of household-level data from USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) found that three-quarters of U.S. households’ calories came from retail stores, with supermarkets, supercenters, and other large grocers providing 65 percent of calories by themselves. Small and specialty food stores like bakeries and farmers’ markets supplied 3 percent of calories and 6.5 percent came from convenience stores, dollar stores, and other stores. Restaurants and other eating places provided 17 percent of household calories. ERS researchers used the detailed FoodAPS data to calculate the nutrient value of food acquisitions and found that the overall nutritional quality of foods purchased at large grocery stores was higher than that of foods purchased at other retail outlets or restaurant and fast-food establishments. A version of this chart appears in the ERS report, Nutritional Quality of Foods Acquired by Americans: Findings from USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey, released on February 21, 2018.

Households that buy directly from farmers spend more money on fruits and vegetables

Thursday, January 25, 2018

ERS researchers recently used USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) data to investigate the relationship between spending for fruits and vegetables and shopping at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer (DTC) outlets. The researchers looked at two groups of households—those that bought fresh and processed fruits and vegetables exclusively at nondirect food stores and those that purchased these foods at both DTC outlets and stores. Households that bought fruits and vegetables directly from farmers spent an average of $12.15 per week at DTC outlets on these foods. They spent another $16.21 on fruits and vegetables at food stores, about as much as households that bought fruits and vegetables exclusively at stores. The study measured the impact that buying directly from farmers has on a household’s overall fruit and vegetable expenditures and found evidence of a positive impact, even after controlling for other demand determinants like income, education, and a household’s attitudes toward food and nutrition. The data for this chart are from the ERS report, The Relationship Between Patronizing Direct-to-Consumer Outlets and a Household’s Demand for Fruits and Vegetables, released on January 24, 2018.

What time of day do Americans engage in primary and secondary eating?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Errata: On May 12, 2017, three numbers in the text of this Chart of Note were revised to correct for erroneous double counting during the indicated 3-hour time period. The corrected percentages are 59 percent reported primary eating and drinking between 5:00 and 7:59 pm, 50 percent between 11:00 am and 1:59 pm, and 34 percent between 7:00 and 9:59 am in 2015.


Data from the Eating and Health Module of the American Time Use Survey provide a snapshot of when Americans eat and drink as their main activity (primary eating and drinking), or when they eat while doing something else (secondary eating). Over an average day in 2015, 95 percent of people age 15 and older engaged in primary eating and drinking at least once, with an average of 2.1 times. Americans have two peak times for primary eating and drinking—noon to 12:59 pm and 6:00 to 6:59 pm. More Americans make time for dinner than for lunch as a primary activity; 59 percent reported primary eating and drinking between 5:00 and 7:59 pm and 50 percent between 11:00 am and 1:59 pm. A third (34 percent) reported eating breakfast as a primary activity between 7:00 and 9:59 am in 2015. Those breakfast skippers—and others—may be grazing throughout the day, as 54 percent ate as a secondary activity at least once during a typical day in 2015, with an average of 1.4 times. From 9 am to 9 pm, at least 5 percent of Americans engaged in secondary eating each hour. The top three activities that accompanied secondary eating were watching television and movies, paid work, and socializing with others. A version of this chart appears in ERS’s Eating and Health Module (ATUS) data product.

Households shopping at supermarkets, supercenters, and warehouse club stores have highest healthy basket scores

Monday, May 8, 2017

Over the past two decades, some store formats—including supercenters, dollar stores, and warehouse club stores—have increased their share of Americans’ spending on “at-home food”—food and beverages purchased from retail stores. Shifts between store formats could have implications for shopping patterns. A recent ERS study computed “healthy basket” scores for monthly at-home food and beverage purchases. The higher the score, the closer a household’s purchases aligned with healthy-diet expenditure shares. Baskets were categorized by the format accounting for the household’s largest share of food expenditures. Scores were highest for households predominantly shopping at warehouse club stores (8.3), supermarkets (8.2), and supercenters (8.0). Household food baskets dominated by purchases from drug stores, convenience stores, and dollar stores had the least healthful purchases. Over 2008-12, an average of 67 percent of households in the data predominantly shopped at supermarkets, 17 percent at supercenters, and 6 percent at warehouse club stores. The other 10 percent shopped predominately at drug, dollar, convenience, and other store formats. This chart appears in "Households Purchase More Produce and Low-Fat Dairy at Supermarkets, Supercenters, and Warehouse Club Stores" in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, May 2017.

Seafood was one of the least consumed protein foods in 2014

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Seafood (fish and shellfish) is a nutrient-rich source of dietary protein which is relatively low in calories and saturated fat compared to some other protein sources. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans eat a variety of protein foods, including at least two servings of seafood per week. According to ERS loss-adjusted food availability data, Americans consumed about 2.7 ounces of fish and shellfish per person per week in 2014, about one-third of the 8-ounce weekly minimum recommended for an average 2,000-calorie diet. Consumers’ appetites for fish and shellfish lagged behind most other foods in the protein group. Seafood demand may be limited by a number of factors, including a lack of awareness about the health benefits of seafood, inexperience with cooking methods and recipes, higher retail prices on average when compared with meat and poultry, and concerns about food safety and mislabeling of imported seafood products. This chart appears in “Americans’ Seafood Consumption Below Recommendations” in the October 2016 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Across income groups, fast food largest source of food-away-from-home calories

Friday, October 21, 2016

Federal food intake surveys conducted between 1977 and 2012 reveal that meals and snacks from fast food places accounted for more of Americans’ away-from-home calories than food from full-service restaurants, school cafeterias, or other away-from-home eating places. In 1977-78, eating places with no wait staff (fast food) provided 5.7 percent of daily calories for those age 2 and older, while food prepared by restaurants with wait staff provided 3.2 percent. By 2011-12, fast food’s share of calories had increased to 15.8 percent, while restaurant foods provided 8.9 percent of daily calories. Fast food’s ranking as the largest contributor to away-from-home calories held true for both higher income individuals (household income above 185 percent of the Federal poverty line) and individuals with incomes below that amount. In all of these surveys, higher income consumers obtained a larger share of their calories from foods prepared by restaurants (11.2 percent in 2011-12) than did lower income consumers (5.8 percent in 2011-12). This chart appears in “Linking Federal Food Intake Surveys Provides a More Accurate Look at Eating Out Trends” in the June 2016 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Fresh and frozen shellfish lead the growth in seafood availability

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The supply of seafood available for consumption in the United States is up from 11.7 pounds per person in 1970—but down from a peak of 16.5 pounds in 2006—according to ERS food availability data. In 1970, fresh and frozen shellfish accounted for 21 percent of seafood availability. In 2014, by comparison, fresh and frozen shellfish (mostly shrimp) accounted for 34 percent of the 14.5 pounds per capita of seafood available for consumption. New efficiencies in shrimp aquaculture beginning in the early 1980s, which sharply increased availability and reduced prices, made shrimp a popular menu item at fast casual dining places across the United States. A 35-percent decline in canned tuna availability since 2000 was largely offset by a surge in fresh and frozen fish availability from low-cost imports of farm-raised salmon and tilapia and the increased use of wild-caught Alaska pollock in frozen fish sticks, imitation crab meat, and fast-food sandwiches. This chart appears in “Americans’ Seafood Consumption Below Recommendations” in the October 2016 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Non-Hispanic Blacks were the only racial/ethnic group to increase whole fruit and total fruit consumption between 1994-98 and 2007-08

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A recent linking of ERS’s loss-adjusted food availability data with food intake surveys from 1994-2008 revealed that Non-Hispanic Blacks were the only group of the racial/ethnic groups examined that had higher whole fruit and total fruit consumption in 2007-08 compared with 1994-98. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that at least half of a person’s recommended fruit consumption be whole fruit. Non-Hispanic Blacks increased their whole fruit consumption to 71.4 pounds per person in 2007-08—an amount still below that of Hispanics and the "other" racial/ethnic group. All four racial/ethnic groups consumed smaller quantities of orange juice and larger quantities of apple juice in 2007-08. Non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics had the largest increases in apple juice consumption. This chart appears in“A Closer Look at Declining Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Using Linked Data Sources” in the July 2016 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Declining potato consumption driving Americans' falling vegetable consumption

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Americans’ consumption of vegetables has not increased, despite advice to the contrary from the health and nutrition community. A recent linking of ERS’s loss-adjusted food availability data with intake surveys reveals that total vegetable consumption fell across four U.S. age and gender groups between 1994-98 and 2007-08, though the decline for women was small. Much of the vegetable decline was driven by reduced consumption of potatoes. Boys had the largest drop; their potato consumption fell from 63.7 pounds (fresh-weight equivalent) per person per year in 1994-98 to 45.2 pounds in 2007-08. Intake of tomatoes—the second most consumed vegetable—held fairly steady for all age groups. When consumption of potatoes and tomatoes is subtracted from the mix, consumption of other vegetables by girls, boys, and men fell, too, but not as sharply as that of potatoes. For women, annual consumption of nonpotato and nontomato vegetables increased by 2.2 pounds per person. This chart appears in “A Closer Look at Declining Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Using Linked Data Sources” in the July 2016 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Working-age Americans spend more time eating while doing something else than other age groups do

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Analyzing the time Americans spend in various activities, and, in particular, food-related activities, may provide some insight into why nutrition and health outcomes vary over time and across different segments of the population. According to the ERS-developed Eating and Health Module of the nationally representative American Time Use Survey, on an average day in 2014, Americans age 15 and older spent 64 minutes eating and drinking as a “primary” or main activity. They spent an additional 16 minutes in eating as a secondary activity, that is, while doing something else such as watching television, driving, preparing meals, or working. People age 65 and older spent considerably more time on average in primary eating and drinking—76 minutes—than those in the younger age groups. Those age 65 and older who were employed spent about the same amount of time in primary eating/drinking and in secondary eating as their peers who were not employed, indicating that there may be generational differences in eating patterns not driven by the amount of time available in retirement. Working-age individuals, ages 25-64, spent the most time in secondary eating in 2014. This chart is from ERS’ Eating and Health Module (ATUS) data product, updated May 16, 2016.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, fresh is not always cheaper than canned or frozen

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fruits and vegetables can be purchased in fresh, canned, dried, and juiced forms. Oftentimes, different forms of the same fruit or vegetable are interchangeable. For example, when cooking some types of stew, fresh or frozen carrots may be used. However, which is less expensive, fresh or processed? ERS researchers estimated average prices paid in 2013 for 24 fresh fruits, 40 fresh vegetables, and 92 processed fruits and vegetables, measured in cup equivalents. A cup equivalent is the edible portion that will generally fit in a standard 1-cup measuring cup; for lettuce and other raw leafy vegetables, a cup equivalent is 2 cups, and for raisins and other dried fruits, one-half cup. Neither fresh nor processed products turned out to be consistently less expensive. Fresh carrots eaten raw are less expensive to consume than canned carrots and frozen carrots. Fresh apples are similarly cheaper than applesauce. However, canned corn and frozen raspberries are less costly than fresh corn and fresh raspberries, respectively. Relative retail prices may reflect the different prices received by growers, as well as differences in processing, handling, and spoilage costs, which vary by form and product. This chart appears in “Fruit and Vegetable Recommendations Can Be Met for $2.10 to $2.60 per Day” in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, March 2016.

Canned fruit isn't more expensive when packed in juice

Monday, March 7, 2016

Canned fruits account for about 10 percent of all fruit consumed by Americans. Canned products can be convenient and available when fresh products are out of season. When buying canned fruit, ChooseMyPlate—USDA’s campaign to promote the Dietary Guidelines—recommends choosing fruit packed in 100-percent juice rather than syrup. Looking at grocery store shelf prices, consumers might believe that fruit packed in syrup is the less expensive option, but this is generally not the case. Five canned fruits in the ERS Fruit and Vegetable Prices data product—apricots, peaches, pears, pineapples, and fruit cocktail—were more expensive to buy at retail stores on a per-pound basis when packed in juice. However, because consuming juice counts towards an individual’s recommended fruit intake, four of these products were cheaper on a per-edible-cup-equivalent basis when packed in juice. An edible cup equivalent of fruit is generally the edible portion of a food that would fill a 1-cup measuring cup. This chart is based on the recent ERS report, The Cost of Satisfying Fruit and Vegetable Recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines released on February 26, 2016.

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