ERS examines the role of economic incentives in food choices and, in turn, how these choices affect diet quality and health. Food choices are influenced not only by prices and income, but also by family structure, time constraints, psychological factors, nutritional information, and Federal food and nutrition assistance programs.
Economic incentives and nutrition information
Food prices are important factors in consumers' food choices, prompting the interest of policymakers and researchers in fiscal policies (via taxes or subsidies) that aim to influence the relative prices of foods and promote healthier food choices. Research on the effectiveness of fiscal policy on food choices and diets has been growing rapidly and findings have been mixed about the effectiveness of fiscal policy in dietary improvement. Recently, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that "...Economic and pricing approaches, using incentives and disincentives should be explored to promote the purchase of healthier foods and beverages."
ERS has conducted several studies to examine the effects of fiscal policy, nutrition information, and socio-demographic factors on food choices and diets. Recent research examined improvement in diets from price intervention and the use of shelf-tag nutrition labeling, based on a case study of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. Key findings include:
- The demand for breakfast cereals is own-price inelastic (that is, the percentage change in quantity is smaller than the percentage change in price). Thus, fiscal policy is expected to have a limited effect on dietary improvement.
- To promote healthier food choices, a fiscal policy will aim to lower the price of healthy foods and raise the price of less healthy foods. When the healthfulness of breakfast foods is evaluated based on nutrients and food components, a price intervention strategy may result in unintended, adverse effects. ERS research results suggest that the hypothetical price intervention would actually increase the caloric content of foods consumed at breakfast. See: Lin, B.H., D.S. Dong, A. Carlson and I. Rahkovsky. 2017. "Potential Dietary Outcomes of Changing Relative Prices of Healthy and Less Healthy Foods: The Case of Ready-to-Eat Breakfast," Food Policy, 68(April):77–88. Published online: 01-Feb-2017: http:/dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2017.01.004.
- ERS researchers examined the introduction of the Guiding Star Program (GSP, a shelf-tag nutrition information program) on purchases of breakfast cereals at supermarkets. The program was found to significantly increase the demand for cereals that GSP considers more nutritious at the expense of cereals considered less nutritious. See: Rahkovsky, I., B.H. Lin, C.T.J. Lin, and J.Y. Lee. 2013. "Effects of the Guiding Stars Program on Purchases of Ready-to-Eat Cereals with Different Nutritional Attributes," Food Policy, 43(December):100-7.
Socioeconomic Factors and Diet Quality
ERS researchers have also produced a growing body of work that examines the ways in which economic and demographic factors are associated with various aspects of diet quality.
Key findings are:
- While most US households could improve the nutritional quality of the foods they purchase or otherwise acquire, households with higher incomes tend to acquire a more nutritious mix of foods, both at home and away from home. See: Nutritional Quality of Foods Acquired by Americans: Findings From USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey
- Where households acquire their food also correlates with nutritional quality, with acquisitions from grocery stores (food at home) being the most nutritious compared with food away from home, and small grocery stores and convenience stores. See: Nutritional Quality of Foods Acquired by Americans: Findings From USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey
- Improving the nutritional quality of diets does not necessarily require spending more money. Reallocating food budgets by spending more on fruits and vegetables and spending less on foods that are high in solid fats, added sugars, and sodium, would lead to a significant improvement in diet quality. See: Following Dietary Guidance Need Not Cost More But Many Americans Would Need To Re-allocate Their Food Budgets.
- Food away from home plays an increasing role in American’s diets, usually with negative effects on diet quality. See the Food Away From Home topic.
- Changes in macroeconomic conditions also correlate with changes in diet quality. In response to the 2007-09 Great Recession, U.S. households cut their spending on meals and snacks away from home, which correlated with improved diet quality during the same time frame. See: Changes in Eating Patterns and Diet Quality Among Working-Age Adults, 2005-2010
Do diets in the U.S. meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendations?
The Federal Government publishes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Guidelines) to help Americans adopt eating patterns that promote health and reduce the risks of major chronic diseases. First published in 1980 and updated every 5 years, the Guidelines uses up-to-date scientific and medical information about individual nutrients and food components to develop eating recommendations for Americans age 2 and older.
ERS has developed the Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System (FADS) which includes three distinct but related data series on food and nutrient availability for consumption. The data serve as proxies for actual consumption at the national level. By comparing FADS data with the dietary recommendations in the Guidelines, ERS researchers have studied how closely Americans are following recommendations in the Guidelines.
A 2017 ERS report found that the average American diet is below the dietary recommendations for fruit, vegetables, and dairy and above the recommendations for grains, protein foods, added fats and oils, and added sugars and sweeteners on the basis of a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. See:U.S. Trends in Food Availability and a Dietary Assessment of Loss-Adjusted Food Availability, 1970-2014
Two earlier ERS reports have also compared the food availability data with the dietary recommendations: