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Food Consumption

The Economic Research Service (ERS) tracks the supply of food available for consumption in the United States and examines consumer food preferences by consumers’ age, income, region, race/ethnicity, and place where food is obtained, as well as by food/commodity categories and other characteristics. Descriptive statistics of commodity consumption help inform producers about who consumes their commodities, how and where their commodities are consumed, and how much is consumed. This information helps the food and agriculture industry improve its promotion strategies. In addition, USDA agencies have used commodity consumption data for regulatory analyses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains two sources of data on U.S. food consumption that are integral to the Federal Government’s ongoing efforts to monitor the health and dietary status of U.S. citizens. These sources are:

  1. The Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System (FADS) compiled by ERS, and
  2. The dietary intake surveys conducted by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

When used together, these sources provide a comprehensive picture of the Nation’s eating habits and support the coordinated research program outlined in the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990.

Data Sources

ERS used three data sources to develop estimates for commodity consumption by demographic characteristics—age, gender, household income, adult education, and race/ethnicity—and food source—food at home and food away from home:

  • The Loss-Adjusted Food Availability (LAFA) data series,
  • The Federal dietary intake surveys, and
  • The Food Intakes Converted to Retail Commodities Databases (FICRCDs), which links foods reported in recent dietary intake surveys to commodities specified in the LAFA data.

The LAFA data are derived from ERS’s FADS data series, and like the rest of its parent series, the LAFA data provide annual estimates of food commodity availability for the Nation as a whole but are not disaggregated by demographics or food source (such as grocery store, school, restaurant, fast food outlet, or community food programs). ERS’s LAFA data series adjusts the food availability data for food spoilage, plate waste, and other losses to more closely approximate actual consumption than the unadjusted data do. The LAFA data provide estimates of the annual loss-adjusted availability for more than 200 food commodities dating back to 1970.   

USDA has conducted periodic dietary intake surveys since the 1930s and has collaborated with NCHS since 2002 to continuously implement dietary intake surveys. In USDA’s dietary recall surveys, respondents list which foods they ate, how much of each food they ate, and where they obtained it. They also provide various economic, social, and demographic data for themselves and their households. Dietary intake surveys record foods consumed (such as apple pie), but the FADS data series provides estimates on commodities (such as apples in various product forms). Therefore, those interested in commodity consumption have historically relied on the FADS data because dietary intake data have had no link to the commodity data.

Since the 1960s, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has collected similar food consumption information with its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is used to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. Starting in 2002, the USDA-NCHS dietary intake surveys have been a major component (termed What We Eat in America) in the NHANES. 

To enhance ERS studies of commodity consumption and link the LAFA commodity data with dietary intake survey data, ERS has collaborated with ARS to develop the Food Intakes Converted to Retail Commodities Databases (FICRCDs). FICRCDs provide commodity content for food intake data as recorded in national dietary surveys and have been developed for the foods reported in the following dietary surveys:

  • Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, 1994-1996 and 1998;
  • National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2000; and
  • What We Eat In America (WWEIA), National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001-02, 2003-04, 2005-06, and 2007-08. 

ERS researchers translate foods reported in dietary intake surveys into LAFA commodities using FICRCDs and estimate daily per capita commodity intakes by demographic characteristics and food source. Then, they demonstrate how to apply the daily per capita commodity intake data to disaggregate the LAFA data by demographic characteristics and food source. LAFA data are disaggregated by demographic characteristics for the above-mentioned dietary intake survey data spanning 1994-2008. Because data on food sources are not available for 1999-2002, LAFA data are disaggregated by food sources for all years between 1994 and 2008 except for 1999-2002.

The development of FICRCDs is ongoing but lags behind LAFA and WWEIA, both of which offer data beyond 2008. The data on disaggregated LAFA will likely be updated if and when more recent FICRCDs become available.

Methods

Several steps are taken to disaggregate the national LAFA estimates by demographic characteristics. First, ERS researchers convert foods reported in dietary surveys into FICRCD commodities, and then calculate the weighted average daily per capita commodity consumption for each demographic characteristic and food source using the sample weight available in the survey. The dietary surveys are nationally representative, and the sample weight is the number of Americans represented by an individual survey respondent.

Second, some of the LAFA commodities are combined into an FICRCD commodity group (for example, stone fruit in FICRCDs includes apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, and prune juice, which are reported separately in the LAFA data). This process ensures that LAFA commodities can be tracked with FICRCD definitions.

Third, daily per capita commodity consumption amounts by demographic characteristics and food source are applied to LAFA data to disaggregate the data—commodity by commodity, according to 63 FICRCD definitions—by household income, age, gender, adult education and race/ethnicity. For more information about the data, methods, and results see the reports:

Selected Results

LAFA data by demographic characteristics

The main findings for four product groups by demographic characteristics are highlighted due to their relevance to the Government’s current priority recommendations for improving Americans’ diet and health and for the significant consumption trends they reveal.

Annual, per capita fruit consumption fell in 2005-08, mainly because of the declining consumption of oranges. From 1994 to 2008, children and adults began consuming less orange juice than in previous years. Between 1994-98 and 2007-08, children’s orange juice consumption dropped from 42.4 to 31.9 pounds, fresh weight equivalent, per person per year. Over the same period, adults’ orange juice consumption dropped from 36.6 to 30.5 pounds.

Between 1994-98 and 2007-08, total vegetable consumption declined from 172.8 to 161.8 pounds, fresh weight equivalent, per person per year. This decline spanned all ages and income groups.  Between 1994-98 and 2007-08, vegetable consumption for children fell from 134.0 to 114.4 pounds per person; for adults, from 189.1 to 180.0 pounds; for low-income individuals, from 157.6 to 147.4 pounds; and for high-income individuals, from 179.7 to 171.6 pounds. Total vegetable consumption has been relatively stable among adult women, but declined among boys, girls, and men. Since 2001-02, the downward trend in total vegetable consumption also spanned all races and ethnicities. Per capita potato consumption—by adults and children and by all races and ethnicities—likewise declined.

Dairy consumption declined between 1994-98 and 2007-08, from 220.5 to 211.4 pounds, fresh weight equivalent, per person per year. The decline was chiefly a result of falling consumption of fluid milk, in spite of rising consumption of cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products (such as cream cheese and sour cream). Of the 211.4 pounds of dairy products consumed during 2007-08, total fluid milk accounted for 62 percent. Cheese and yogurt accounted for small shares of total dairy consumption, but unlike fluid milk, consumption of cheese and yogurt trended upward for all demographic groups.

Chicken consumption rose, while beef and pork consumption declined slightly from 1994 to 2008.  For beef consumption, disparities by race and ethnicity apparently widened, largely because of declining consumption among non-Hispanic Blacks and individuals of “other” races and ethnicities. Between 1994-98 and 2007-08, beef consumption declined among non-Hispanic Blacks from 57.1 to 43.5 pounds, fresh weight equivalent, per person per year, and among “other” ethnicities from 45.9 to 31.1 pounds. Pork consumption among non-Hispanic Whites was relatively stable over 1994-2008, but declined among the other racial and ethnic groups. Chicken consumption rose among all races and ethnicities, although at different rates.

LAFA data by food source

More than half of all food commodities were obtained for at-home consumption and consumed at home. This finding is consistent with ERS food expenditure data which shows that the at-home market accounted for 58 percent of total food expenditures; ERS nutrient intake data show that 68 percent of total calories were consumed at home. On average, between 1994 and 2008, over 80 percent of total fruit, dairy, and nuts were obtained for at-home use, whereas 61 percent of all meats and fish were obtained for at-home use. Over time, the at-home shares of some commodities—berries, fluid milk, caloric sweeteners, and nuts—rose while others—chicken and wheat flour—declined.

The at-home share of berry consumption rose with per capita availability. Flavor, healthfulness, convenience, and year-round availability have contributed to increasing consumer demand for berries, with per capita availability growing from 4.5 pounds per person per year during 1994-98 to 6.6 pounds during 2007-08. The at-home share of berries rose from 82.8 percent during 1994-98 to 88.6-90.6 percent during 2003-08.

Slightly over half the amount of lettuce and potatoes was obtained for at-home use. Sixty-two percent (169 pounds per capita per year) of total vegetables were obtained for at-home use during 1994-2008. Among vegetables, the at-home share was smallest for lettuce (averaging 52 percent and 7.8 pounds) and potatoes (averaging 53 percent and 29.8 pounds) during 1994-2008. Sweet corn and green peas had the highest at-home market shares, both averaging 80 percent (5.8 pounds for sweet corn and 1.4 pounds for green peas during 1994-2008.

The at-home share for cheese was much smaller than for other dairy products. On average, 82 percent of total dairy was obtained for at-home use during 1994-2008, with per capita consumption averaging 175 pounds at home and 39 pounds away from home. For yogurt, the at-home market captured 91 percent of consumption (5.8 pounds at home versus 0.6 pound away from home, per capita, per year). The at-home market also dominated fluid milk consumption with an 85-percent market share. In contrast, 57 percent of cheese was obtained for at-home use, on average, during 1994-2008—11.7 pounds at home versus 8.7 pounds away from home, per capita, per year.

Among all meats and fish, chicken had the smallest at-home market share. On average, 61 percent of all meats and fish were obtained for at-home use, averaging 88 pounds per capita per year at home and 57.3 pounds away from home during 1994-2008. The away-from-home share of chicken consumption rose from 41.9 percent during 1994-98 to 46.4 percent during 2007-08. This trend is consistent with the introduction of chicken nuggets and their rising popularity in fast food places.

These results improve our understanding of who consumes what food commodities, how much is consumed, and where food commodities are obtained. Future research could investigate the feasibility of disaggregating FICRCD commodities by combining multiple waves of survey data to increase sample sizes, as well as to continue developing FICRCDs for more recent intake survey data.

You may also be interested in:

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-per-capita-data-system/

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Eating Patterns: Who Eats What, Where, and How Much? 

Commodity Consumption by Population Characteristics

Related Topics

Last updated: Tuesday, February 28, 2017

For more information contact: Biing-Hwan Lin

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