How Healthy is the U.S. Food Supply?

June 25, 2010

The U.S. food supply is failing to provide diets that are in sync with federal recommendations, according to a recent study from the National Cancer Institute.

The U.S. food supply is failing to provide diets that are in sync with federal recommendations, according to a recent study from the National Cancer Institute. The study, which examined trends in the U.S. food supply over the past few decades using the Healthy Eating Index-2005 (an index of dietary quality), found that there is currently not enough healthy food available to meet current dietary guidelines.

While the scores for total grain availability were high, increasing during the 1980s and 1990s, scores for whole grains were extremely low, and even declining. Also scoring low were dark-green vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes. Overall, low vegetable and fruit scores suggest that the food supply contained only about half of the recommended amount for all years (from 1970 to 2007), changing little over time.

Milk too has only been available at half of the recommended levels and has been declining over time. On the other hand, meat and beans have been available at near optimal levels and have stayed consistent over time. 

With all the buzz in the news about decreasing dietary sodium, it’s no surprise that the study found excessive levels of sodium in the current food supply. Scores for sodium quality were very low, indicating that the sodium content of the food supply is well above recommended levels. Meanwhile, calories from added sugars rose steadily in the food supply from 1970 until 2000 but have dipped a bit since then.

To make matters worse, recent analyses from the National Cancer Institute have found that across nearly all age and gender groups, the vast majority of the population (95%) is not consuming enough dark-green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes, or whole grains, and a majority of adult women are not consuming enough milk. And, too many calories are coming from added sugars, solid fats and alcoholic beverages.

Although the government-issued Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been stressing the same general points for decades, they appear to have had little influence on how consumers eat, says study co-author Dr. Krebs-Smith. In order for Americans to make healthy choices, she says, such choices must be available, affordable and accessible in our communities, workplaces, schools, daycare facilities, and/or any other space that defines our daily living.

“It is unlikely that Americans’ diets will markedly change without substantial changes to the food supply to make it more consistent with healthy eating,” says Krebs-Smith.

Krebs-Smith says that food supply shifts sufficient to meet dietary recommendations for all U.S. consumers would require adjustments in U.S. agricultural production, trade, marketing practices and prices of a range of food commodities. Substantial changes will require government, industry and other stakeholders to work together, which is no minor task. However, Krebs-Smith says small steps towards an improved food supply can be made with thoughtful innovation.

“In the 1980’s, a California farmer had the insight to create short-cut ‘baby’ carrots from longer ones which were too misshapen to sell otherwise. This simple idea increased carrot consumption in the U.S. by 33%! This suggests that shifts toward a healthier food supply could be a potent facilitator of changes in eating habits,” she says.

The consequences of not improving the food supply are already being seen. Four of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States – heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes mellitus – are related to diet. In addition, many serious conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and osteoporosis, are caused, at least in part, by dietary imbalances.

Therefore, improved eating habits have the potential to alleviate excess morbidity and mortality, enormous economic costs, and the tremendous toll on quality of life caused by these conditions. Deliberate efforts on the part of policymakers and industry may be necessary to produce a supply consistent with recommendations.

Krebs-Smith adds, “Food producers and retailers can commit to providing a plentiful supply of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and poultry, fish and low fat milk products and limiting their supplies of foods and beverages high in added sugars, sodium and unnecessary fats. They could also alter marketing practices related to promotion, placement and pricing of products in ways that would encourage consumers to make more healthful choices.”


This article is from the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science. This issue publishes on Monday, June 28th. Click here for a free subscription.

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