USDA: a nation of bad eaters stays bad

April 19, 2013

Consumers don’t conform to USDA Dietary Guidelines when buying foods—they aren’t even close.

American households underspend on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy, and overspend on fats, sugars/sweets, refined grains and convenience foods—when compared with USDA Dietary Guidelines, a USDA Economic Research Service analysis of 23 broad food categories shows.

The ERS studied Nielsen Homescan data for the period between 1998 and 2006, and found little change in the nation’s food choices over time.

Away-from-home foods further impair diet quality today, says ERS, noting they’re less healthful and account for one-third of our daily caloric intake:  “Americans still make poor dietary choices…[despite federal] guidelines widely promoted and updated every five years to keep pace with advances in nutrition knowledge.”

The nominal purchase shifts show: Fruits accounted for 8.4% of food expenditures in 2006, down from 9.8% in 1998; vegetables also slid to 7.9% from 9.3%.  Meanwhile, processed/packaged foods rose to a 19.8% share from 16.6%, and beverages rose to 28.9% from 27.9%.  On a smaller scale, whole grains rose to 1.3% from 0.7% while refined grains slipped to 5.4% from 6.2%. 

A deeper look at category data shows how badly household purchases compare with dietary guidelines.  Some examples:

  • The average U.S. household spends more than 17% of its food expenditures on refined grains, when the recommendation is less than 5%.
  • We spend nearly 14% on sweets and candies, when the recommendation is less than 1%.
  • We spend more than 8% on beverages vs. a 1% recommendation.
  • We spend nearly 10% on red meat vs. a 6% recommendation.
  • We spend less than 4% on low-fat dairy vs. a 10% recommendation.
  • We spend less than 2% on whole grains vs. a 10% recommendation.
  • We spend a bit more than 4% on whole fruits vs. a 16% recommendation.
  • We spend less than 1% on dark green vegetables vs. a nearly 8% recommendation.
  • We spend 2% on fish vs. a 9% recommendation.

This study further cements our feeling at The Lempert Report that the longer the industry goes without standardized, consensus-built labels and signs that guide shoppers to more healthful choices, the worse our health challenges will become.