Flexible Consumer Behavior Survey

Overview

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

The FCBS is a component of both the NHANES household interview and a follow-up telephone interview that is administered 3 to 10 days after an appointment at a mobile examination center. The FCBS household interview questions do not change from one NHANES wave to the next, but the telephone interview was designed to be "flexible" so that new topical questions could occasionally replace older questions.

Data from the first wave (2007-08), second wave (2009-10), third wave (2011-12), and fourth wave (2013-14) of the FCBS are currently available for public use. Data from the fifth wave (2015-16) are forthcoming in 2018, and the sixth wave is currently being fielded as part of the 2017-18 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) or 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.

FCBS data are publicly available on NCHS's website. See the questionnaires by FCBS wave:  

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

Selected results from the 2013-14 FCBS wave and earlier waves

ERS analysis of FCBS data provides insight into the use of nutrition information in restaurants, frequency of eating out, consumption of convenience foods, and self-assessed diet quality. The analysis focuses on adults age 20 and older, comparing 2013-14 FCBS data with data from previous FCBS waves in the following four categories:

Use of nutrition information in fast-food places and restaurants

ERS research indicates that the share of food dollars spent on food prepared away from home (FAFH) is rising, as is the share of calories from FAFH. These trends have important implications for the American diet. For example, 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 they bought food from a fast-food or pizza place ("fast-food restaurant") or had eaten at a restaurant with waiter/waitress service ("sit-down restaurant") in the past 12 months. For example, in 2013-14, about 87 percent of adults bought food from a fast-food restaurant, and 87 percent of adults ate at a sit-down restaurant in the past 12 months. The percentage of adults who bought food from a fast-food restaurant in the past 12 months fell significantly by about 4 percentage points from 2007-08 to 2013-14. Similarly, the decline in the percentage of adults who ate food at a sit-down restaurant fell significantly by about 2 percentage points.

View the actual FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

For those who either bought food from a fast-food restaurant or had 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 restaurant menus more than doubled from 2007-08 to 2013-14. Specifically, the percentage of adults who saw nutrition information on a fast-food restaurant menu increased significantly from 20 percent in 2007-08 to 43 percent in 2013-14. Over the same two periods, the percentage of adults who saw nutrition information on a sit-down restaurant menu increased significantly from 16 percent to 33 percent. Such significant increases may be driven, in part, by local and State mandatory menu labeling regulations that were implemented between 2007 and 2014, as well as voluntary efforts to improve access to nutrition information at the point of purchase by an increasing share of FAFH establishments.

View the actual 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 visit, the FCBS also asked respondents if they used the information in deciding which foods to buy. From 2007-08 to 2013-14, the percentage of adults who used nutrition information on a fast-food restaurant menu rose from 40 percent to 43 percent; however, this increase was not statistically significant. By contrast, over the same two periods, the percentage of adults who used nutrition information on a menu at a sit-down restaurant decreased significantly from 53 percent to 43 percent.

View the actual FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

ERS research found that when consumers use dietary rules of thumb (for example, identifying deep-fried foods on restaurant menus), they can readily distinguish between low- and high-calorie menu items. However, the use of observable food characteristics as a tool to estimate caloric content was found to be much less effective for distinguishing between foods that differ only modestly in calorie counts. Restaurant menus with calorie information may allow U.S. consumers to fine-tune their food choices, even when they have a substantial level of nutrition knowledge. See:

Menu Labeling Imparts New Information About the Calorie Content of Restaurant Foods

Food-away-from-home 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 that they consumed 4.0 FAFH meals, on average, in the past 7 days. In 2013-14, average FAFH frequency fell significantly to 3.6 FAFH meals in the past 7 days. In 2007-08, about 1.8 FAFH meals were from a fast-food restaurant. In 2013-14, meal frequency from fast-food restaurants fell to 1.7 meals in the past 7 days, but this decline was not statistically significant. Taken together, the FCBS data reveal that, in both 2007-08 and 2013-14, less than half of FAFH meals were from a fast-food restaurant, and this percentage did not change significantly from 2007-08 to 2013-14.

View the actual 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 eat in restaurants more often are more familiar with the nutrition information provided on restaurant menus and therefore 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

Use 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 they had consumed 1.9 ready-to-eat foods and 2.7 frozen meals or pizzas in the past 30 days. In 2013-14, consumption increased to 2.2 ready-to-eat foods and to 2.8 frozen meals or pizzas in the past 30 days, but both increases were not statistically significant.

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

U.S. Households’ Demand for Convenience Foods

View the actual FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.

Self-assessed diet quality

The FCBS helps to evaluate 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 2013-14, 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 5 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 diets is either "good" or "very good." No significant differences in the diet quality categories were observed between 2007-08 and 2013-14, which indicates that self-assessed diet quality was stable over these two time points.

ERS research found that, compared with data from the 1989-91 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals, data from the 2005-08 FCBS indicate 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 be taken to suggest a reduced optimistic bias in Americans’ views of diet. See:

How Americans Rate Their Diet Quality: An Increasingly Realistic Perspective

View the actual FCBS question(s) and underlying data in Excel format.