ERS examines economic, social, and environmental factors influencing consumers’ food choices. Food choices and diet quality are influenced by food prices, household income, economic incentives, and nutrition information. Other important effects in diet quality include family structure, time constraints, psychological factors, and Federal food and nutrition assistance programs. Recent evidence from the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the economy’s influence on diet quality and food choices.
Economic incentives and nutrition information
Food prices are important factors in consumers' food choices, prompting the interest of fiscal policymakers and researchers who aim to influence the relative prices of foods and promote healthier food choices through taxes or subsidies. Research on how fiscal policies shape food choices and diets have grown rapidly.
ERS has conducted several studies examining 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 ready-to-eat breakfast cereals is “own-price inelastic.” In other words, the percentage change in the purchased quantity of breakfast cereal is smaller than the percentage change of the price of the cereal. So fiscal policy is expected to have a limited effect on dietary improvement regarding breakfast cereals.
- ERS researchers studied the effect of a hypothetical fiscal policy lowering the price of healthy foods and raising the price of less healthy foods to promote healthier food choices. When the healthfulness of breakfast foods is evaluated based on nutrients and food components, a price intervention strategy may result in unintended negative effects. ERS research results suggest hypothetical price intervention would increase the caloric content of foods consumed at breakfast. For more information, please 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.
- ERS researchers examined the launch 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 contribute to a growing body of work that examines how economic and demographic factors are associated with various aspects of diet quality.
Key findings are:
- Although 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. Acquisitions from large grocery stores are the most nutritious compared with food acquisitions from small grocery stores and convenience stores, as well as food prepared away from home (e.g., food consumed at restaurants, fast food, carry out, or vending machine snacks). See: Nutritional Quality of Foods Acquired by Americans: Findings From USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey
- Improving diets’ nutritional quality does not necessarily require spending more money. Reallocating food budgets by spending more on fruits and vegetables and spending less on foods 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 U.S. consumers’ diets, often negatively affecting diet quality. See the Food Away From Home topic.
- Changes in macroeconomic conditions are connected with diet quality changes. In response to the 2007–09 Great Recession, U.S. households cut their spending on meals and snacks away from home, which corresponded to improved diet quality during the same time frame. See: Changes in Eating Patterns and Diet Quality Among Working-Age Adults, 2005-2010
- The share of food consumed at home and away from home in 2013–2016 varies by commodity group. For example, 62 percent of meat, poultry, and fish consumption is at home while 89 percent of nuts are consumed at home. State and local shelter-in-place restrictions reduced purchasing behaviors, which may impact types of food consumed during the COVID-19 pandemic. See: COVID-19 Working Paper: Shares of Commodity Consumption at Home, Restaurants, Fast Food Places, Schools, and Other Away-from-Home Places: 2013-16
Do diets in the U.S. meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendations?
In partnership with the USDA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Guidelines). These Guidelines can help people living in the U.S. adopt healthy eating patterns that promote health and reduce the risks of major chronic diseases. First published in 1980 and updated every 5 years, the Guidelines use the latest scientific and medical information about individual nutrients and food components to recommend healthy dietary practices from infancy through older age.
ERS developed the Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System (FADS), which includes three distinct but related data series on food and nutrient availability. By comparing FADS data with dietary recommendations in the Guidelines, ERS researchers study how closely Americans are following the Guidelines dietary recommendations.
A 2017 ERS report found the average U.S. 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. See:U.S. Trends in Food Availability and a Dietary Assessment of Loss-Adjusted Food Availability, 1970-2014
Additionally, two earlier ERS reports compared the food availability data with the Guidelines dietary recommendations: