Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey

Overview

Since 2007, ERS has fielded the Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey (FCBS), a module in NCHS's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), designed to collect information on U.S. consumers' knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs regarding nutrition and food choices. NHANES collects a wide variety of health data on the U.S. population by administering household interviews and conducting physical examinations at mobile examination centers. During the physical examination, NHANES also administers a 24-hour dietary recall to obtain information about foods and beverages that respondents consumed in the past 24 hours, making it possible to link dietary habits to health measures such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Because NHANES covers a nationally representative sample of Americans, FCBS data reflect national trends about changing dietary behaviors of U.S. consumers.

Data from the first wave (2007-08), second wave (2009-10), third wave (2011-12), fourth wave (2013-14), and fifth wave (2015-16) of the FCBS are currently available for public use. Data from the sixth wave (2017-18) are forthcoming, and the seventh wave is currently being fielded as part of the 2019-20 NHANES. The FCBS collects a range of information including the following:

  • Economic measures, such as monthly income, assets, food expenditures, and participation in food and nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children); and
  • Dietary and behavioral indicators, such as self-assessed diet quality; types of foods available in the home; frequency of eating out; time spent grocery shopping and time spent cooking meals at home; nutritional knowledge; use of food labels while grocery shopping and use of nutrition information when eating out; and the importance of price, convenience, and taste when grocery shopping or eating out.

The 2005-06 NHANES wave contained a subset of questions from the FCBS. Data from the FCBS are publicly available on NCHS's website. See the questions that were asked of respondents by FCBS wave:  

For more information about NHANES, see: National Center for Health Statistics.

Selected results from the 2015-16 FCBS wave and earlier waves

ERS analysis of FCBS data provides insight into Americans' use of nutrition information in restaurants, frequency of eating out, consumption of convenience foods, self-assessed diet quality, and awareness of the MyPlate eating plan. The analysis focuses on adults age 20 and older ("adults" hereafter), comparing 2015-16 FCBS data with data from previous FCBS waves in the following five categories:

  • Use of nutrition information in restaurants
  • Food-away-from-home meal frequency
  • Consumption of convenience foods
  • Self-assessed diet quality
  • Awareness of the MyPlate eating plan

Use of nutrition information in restaurants

ERS research indicates that food prepared away from home (FAFH) has become increasingly integral to the American diet. The share of Americans' food budgets for FAFH surpassed the share for food at home (FAH) for the first time in 2010 when it was slightly over 50 percent, up from 41 percent in 1984. See:

America’s Eating Habits: Food Away From Home

The share of calories from FAFH has also increased over time, with important implications for the American diet. ERS research indicates that, among adults, substituting a FAFH meal for a meal prepared at home adds about 134 calories to an individual's daily caloric intake and lowers diet quality by about 2 points on the Healthy Eating Index. See:

The Impact of Food Away From Home on Adult Diet Quality

FCBS data show that the vast majority of adults reported that, in the past 12 months, they bought food from a fast-food or pizza place ("fast-food restaurant") or had eaten at a restaurant with wait service ("sit-down restaurant"). In 2015-16, about 89 percent of adults bought food from a fast-food restaurant, and 90 percent of adults ate at a sit-down restaurant in the past 12 months.

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

Among those who had either purchased food from a fast-food restaurant or eaten food at a sit-down restaurant in the past 12 months, the FCBS asked respondents if they saw nutrition information about any foods on the menu during their last visit. The percentage of adults who saw nutrition information on a fast-food restaurant menu increased significantly from 20 percent in 2007-08 to 42 percent in 2015-16. Over the same time period, the percentage of adults who saw nutrition information on a sit-down restaurant menu increased significantly from 16 percent to 27 percent. These significant increases may have been driven, in part, by local and State mandatory menu labeling regulations that were implemented starting in 2007, as well as voluntary efforts to improve access to nutrition information at the point of purchase by an increasing share of food service establishments throughout the Nation.

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

For those who saw nutrition information about any foods on a fast-food or sit-down restaurant menu during their last restaurant visit, the FCBS also asked respondents if they used the information in deciding which foods to buy. From 2007-08 to 2015-16, the percentage of adults who used nutrition information on a fast-food restaurant menu rose an insignificant amount, from 40 percent to 41 percent. In contrast, over the same period, the percentage of adults who used nutrition information on a sit-down restaurant menu dropped significantly from 53 percent to 43 percent.

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

ERS research suggests that when seeing nutrition information on restaurant menus, some consumers may use the information to align their food orders with their demand for lower calories, helping them keep their total daily caloric intake lower than consumers who see but do not use the information. Using FCBS data from 2007-08 through 2013-14, ERS researchers compared the average total daily calorie intakes of adults who saw nutrition information on a menu on their last restaurant visit and then used the information to a comparable group of adults who noticed the information but chose not to use it. Because these two groups may differ in other ways, ERS researchers also adjusted caloric intakes for differences in socio-demographic characteristics and interview-related factors (such as whether consumption occurred on a weekday or weekend). Even after accounting for such differences, the analysis revealed that restaurant menu label users consumed 167-180 fewer calories per day compared with nonusers—a calorie intake gap of 8-9 percent of a 2,000-calorie reference diet. See:

The Association Between Restaurant Menu Label Use and Caloric Intake

Food-away-from-home meal frequency

To get a sense of how often consumers eat out, the FCBS asked respondents how many FAFH meals they had consumed in the past 7 days. In 2007-08, adults reported, on average, that they had consumed 4.0 FAFH meals in the past 7 days. In 2015-16, the average FAFH frequency fell significantly to 3.6 FAFH meals in the past 7 days. FCBS data also reveal that, in both 2007-08 and 2015-16, less than half of FAFH meals were from a fast-food restaurant, and this percentage did not change significantly from 2007-08 to 2015-16.

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

ERS research, using the 2007-08 and 2009-10 waves of the FCBS, found that, of the adults who eat out, those who eat out more frequently are less likely to use nutrition information at fast-food and sit-down restaurants than those who eat out occasionally. This result suggests that consumers who frequently eat in restaurants are more familiar with the nutrition information on menus and are less likely to use it, or they may be less inclined to eat a healthy diet. See:

Consumers' Use of Nutrition Information When Eating Out

Consumption of convenience foods

Preparing food at home can be time-intensive. Owing to time constraints, consumers may instead choose to purchase frozen meals or "ready-to-eat" foods such as salads, soups, chicken, sandwiches, and cooked vegetables from the salad bars and deli counters of grocery stores. The FCBS asked respondents about their consumption of convenience foods in the past 30 days. In 2007-08, adults reported that in the past 30 days, they had consumed ready-to-eat foods 1.9 times and frozen meals or pizzas 2.7 times. In 2015-16, consumption of ready-to-eat foods increased significantly to 2.4 times in the past 30 days; however, the increase to 2.8 times for frozen meals or pizzas was not statistically significant.

ERS research indicates that over the last 4 decades, the demand for convenience foods has grown in the U.S. This increased demand for convenience foods may have important implications for diet quality and health. See:

U.S. Households’ Demand for Convenience Foods

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

Self-assessed diet quality

The FCBS helps in evaluating how Americans assess their own diets by asking respondents if they think their diets are "excellent," "very good," "good," "fair," or "poor" in terms of healthfulness. In 2015-16, 42 percent of adults reported that the healthfulness of their diet was "good," while 8 percent of adults gave themselves a rating of "excellent," and 6 percent of adults gave themselves a rating of "poor." In each wave, FCBS data indicate that the majority of adults think that the healthfulness of their diet is either "good" or "very good." No significant differences in the diet quality categories were observed from 2007-08 to 2015-16, which indicates that self-assessed diet quality was stable over this time period.

ERS research found that, compared with data from the 1989-91 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals, data from the 2005-08 FCBS show that adults were much less likely to rate their diets as "excellent" or "very good" in terms of healthfulness. This pattern was observed even though the healthfulness of the American diet underwent little change between 1989-91 and 2005-08, which may suggest a less optimistic bias in Americans’ views of diet. See:

How Americans Rate Their Diet Quality: An Increasingly Realistic Perspective

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

Awareness of the MyPlate eating plan

A USDA guide to support healthy eating patterns called MyPlate, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, replaced MyPyramid and the Food Guide Pyramid in June 2011. The MyPlate plan is a personalized eating plan that recommends food group targets based on an individual’s age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. The FCBS data indicate that 24 percent of adults reported that they had heard of MyPlate in 2015-16, up  from 20 percent in 2013-14.

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

Among those who had heard of MyPlate, the FCBS asked respondents if they had looked up or tried to follow recommendations in the MyPlate plan. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, the percentage of adults who looked up the MyPlate plan on the internet rose significantly from 32 percent to 40 percent. By contrast, the percentage of adults who had tried to follow the recommendations in the MyPlate plan remained stable at 35 percent over these two time periods.

View the exact wording of the FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

Last updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

For more information contact: Brandon Restrepo