Food Consumption

ERS tracks the supply of food available for consumption in the United States and examines consumer food preferences by age, income, region, race, whether people eat at home or away, and other characteristics. Descriptive statistics of commodity consumption help to inform growers about who consumes their commodities, how and where their commodities are used, and how much is consumed. The information enables the food and agriculture industry to improve its promotion strategies, and USDA used it to complete a regulatory analysis for nutrition labeling on beef. 

Descriptive studies of food consumption

ERS has conducted a series of analyses describing food consumption by age, income, region, race, and eating location. For a complete list of publications related to this topic, see Eating Patterns: Who Eats What, Where, and How Much.

Factors affecting food commodity consumption

To better understand the factors affecting food consumption as well as to predict consumption, ERS conducted regression analyses. This effort was integral to a comprehensive study of U.S. food and commodity consumption (see Food and Agricultural Commodity Consumption in the United States: Looking Ahead to 2020, February 2003, link below).

Food and Agricultural Commodity Consumption in the United States: Looking Ahead to 2020

ERS has published separate analyses of consumption of potato products, pork products, and grain products in journals. Contact Biing-Hwan Lin for reprints.

Implications for U.S. agriculture

A 2006 ERS report provides one view of the potential implications for U.S. agriculture if Americans fully changed their current consumption patterns to meet select recommendations in the 2005 Guidelines (see Possible Implications for U.S. Agriculture From Adoption of Select Dietary Guidelines, November 2006, link below). To meet the fruit, vegetable, and whole-grain recommendations, ERS estimates that domestic crop acreage would need to increase by 7.4 million harvested acres, or 1.7percent of total U.S. cropland in 2002. Additionally, an estimated 111 billion more pounds of milk and milk products would be needed each year for Americans to meet the dairy consumption recommendations. Some of this change would likely require an increase in dairy cows, which would raise demand for feed grains and, possibly, acreage devoted to dairy production.

Possible Implications for U.S. Agriculture From Adoption of Select Dietary Guidelines

Another study by ERS researchers examined how aggregate food consumption and production levels would change if Americans were to meet public health objectives set forth in the Surgeon General's "Healthy People 2010" compared to USDA baseline projections. To meet two objectives—increase the percentage of the population with a healthy weight and decrease the percentage of the population who are obese—without changing levels of physical activity would require a 6-percent reduction in aggregate food consumption. This, in turn, would lead to a drop in production of agricultural commodities and reduce net returns to producers by $3.5 billion. However, if population weight objectives are met by also increasing physical activity, these same goals could be achieved at much less cost ($1.3 billion). Changes in agricultural activities would vary across regions, with the largest potential changes in producer net returns in the Corn Belt and the Lake States. (See: Johansson, R., L. Mancino, and J. Cooper. 2006. "The Big Picture: Production Impacts of Reduced Obesity," Agribusiness, 22(5):1-13.)

Interactions among different agricultural commodity markets may moderate the size of any adjustments estimated by ERS. Consumers could substitute some products for others, depending on prices. Farmers, who base planting decisions on expected prices, could alternate among crops, with limitations, on the same piece of land. Producers and processors could alter the supply of final foods, depending on relative prices, consumer demand, and changing technologies.

Because of the size and complexity of the U.S. food system, an almost infinite combination of foods, production methods, end uses, and trade adjustments could work together to move diets toward the Federal dietary recommendations. Food consumption is just one of several components of demand for agricultural products, along with animal feed, exports, and nonfood or industrial uses. Shifts in food demand due to dietary change would likely result in offsetting shifts in production, trade, and nonfood uses, which would tend to moderate the effects on food prices and farm income in the long run.

U.S. per capita food availability for dairy products (available weight in pounds)
Year Dairy products Fluid milk and related products*
1993 1.6 3.4
1994 1.9 3.7
1995 1.8 3.8
1996 2.1 4.2
1997 1.9 4.0
1998 1.7 3.8
*Computed from unrounded data.
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service. Data last updated February 1, 2001.