Is the Average American’s Diet Reflecting Consumer Trends?

by Meagan McGinnes

According to loss-adjusted food availability data from a study conducted by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the average American’s total daily calories per person decreased from 2,545 to 2,481 calories from the year 2000 to 2010. Of those calories, animal-based and plant-based foods made up the same percentage in a person’s diet in both years. This statistic contradicts analysts predictions and trends that suggest consumers are seeking out and eating more plant-based foods, a growing sector with an estimated value of $4.9B last year according to data from by SPINS.

The annual study, which surveyed about 5,000 people, asked respondents to record what they ate in a 36-hour period and to undergo an extensive health evaluation. The data indicates that grains are the primary contributor to the average American’s daily calories per capita, followed by plant-based fats and oils, and meat, poultry and fish coming in close behind.

The study’s results are leaving some, including USDA Senior Economist Biing-Hwan Lin, concerned. In updated federal dietary guidelines released last year, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services encouraged Americans to eat more fruits, legumes, vegetables, lean meats, low or no-fat dairy, whole grains and plant-based oils while cutting back on red meat, sugar and salt. Despite the recommendation, Lin told NOSH only three of the 10 food categories evaluated in his most recent study saw changes in calorie amounts greater than 10 percent. Of most concern, he said, was an 11 percent decrease in average calories consumed from both vegetables and added sugar and sweeteners.

“It is very important to eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” Lin said. “There have been guidelines to this effect for Americans, but at the same time we are still not doing that, especially when eating away from home. [Consumers] are running out of time all the time, so when we eat out, we should pay more attention to the nutritional profiles of our meals.”

The decrease in sugars is also not as sweet as it may appear at first glance. The drop may be thought to reflect the trend of consumers steering clear from added sugars; however, calories from these sugars is not a substantial portion of the American diet, Lin noted. Added plant-based sugar and sweeteners, which includes high fructose corn sweetener and other not naturally occurring sugars in food, only decreased on average by 47 calories between 2000 and 2010.

Though the report found little change in broad food categories, the amount of calories from individual food commodities within the categories did shift. The proportion of calories from meat, poultry, and fish stayed at 17 percent of total calories in both 2000 and 2010, but within this category, there was an increase in calories per capita from poultry and fish and a decrease in calories from red meat. Though the vegetable category as a whole saw a drop, the per-capita calories from kale and sweet potatoes increased.

Lin said he thinks this individual food data can potentially help brands to innovate within and across categories.

“Though [the study] is not necessarily intended for them, food companies can certainly learn from this report,” he said. “[They can] see a trend and see how consumers are behaving over time.”