Trends In Food Consumption

In the depression years of the 1930s, concern about the quality of American diets was high. To address this and other issues related to family economics, the USDA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted several national studies (13). The comprehensive picture of household food consumption and dietary levels obtained in the Consumer Purchases Study of 1935-1936 indicated that one-third of the nation's families had diets that were poor by nutritional standards (26). These findings gave impetus to the enrichment of white flour and bread with iron and three B vitamins, establishment of the National School Lunch Program, and expansion of nutrition education and research. Also, USDA economists used results to project food consumption in the United States and to develop food budgets to help families select good diets. A later version of the least costly of these food budgets, the Thrifty Food Plan, is still used in the federal formulas for counting the nation's poor (27) and for setting benefit levels in the Food Stamp Program (28).

The 1942 Spending and Saving in Wartime Survey measured the early effects of World War II on food consumption in urban, rural, and farm families at different income levels (29). The survey found marked improvement from the 1930s in diets overall, but many families' intakes of several nutrients were low in comparison with the new standards, the RDAs, first issued in 1941. Between the 1935-1936 survey and the 1948 survey of urban areas, great strides were made in the distribution and storage of food products, most notably in home refrigeration. These changes affected the way people purchased and used food.

Between the household food consumption surveys of 1955 and 1965-1966, the availability and consumer acceptance of many new, more convenient food products changed the cooking practices in many American households. For example, the use of mixes for baked products such as cakes and muffins and the availability of ready-made baked products led to a decrease in baking "from scratch," and household consumption of flour, sugar, and other basic baking ingredients decreased.

Between 1965-1966 and 1977-1978, the proliferation of new products was especially marked. Technological changes, such as freeze-dried coffee, and the increasing variety of commercially frozen foods reflected breakthroughs in food processing and packaging. Lifestyle changes, such as increases in the proportion of women employed outside the home, may have decreased the time spent in meal preparation and increased the demand for convenience foods and fast-food restaurants.

Between 1977 and 1985, when the CSFII was initiated, substantial changes occurred in food intakes—shifts to lower fat milk, less meat eaten separately (not as part of a mixture), and more grain products. These shifts, most prominent among higher income, more educated respondents, may have reflected concerns about diet and health issues. Nutrient intakes were at least as good, if not better in some respects, in 1985 than in 1977. However, the intakes of some nutrients were still below the 1980 RDAs (30); these observations were apparent at all levels of income and in all geographic regions.

The NFCS 1987-1988 showed a continuation of the dietary trends observed between 1977 and 1985 toward lower-fat milk, less meat eaten separately, and more grain products. Total fat intakes as a percentage of calories fell from 40% in 1977-1978 to 36% in 1987-1988. More of the household food dollar was spent away from home, and fewer meals were consumed from household food supplies in 1987-1988 than in 1977-1978. These changes may have resulted from a desire for increased convenience and variety. The food industry responded in a number of ways: more and varied restaurants, more microwavable packaging, and more bakeries, delicatessens, and salad bars in supermarkets.

In 1989-1991 survey data indicated that eating habits more closely followed national dietary guidelines than in the past, but the amount of fat in the average diet was still higher than the 30% recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (1), and Americans were eating lower amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains, and low-fat dairy products than recommended. In 1989-1991, results from the DHKS showed that only about one-fourth of main meal-planners/preparers met dietary recommendations for fat and saturated fat, and that their perceptions about their diets did not always match reality.

Data from the 1994-1996 CSFII indicated a continued decline in the percentage of calories from fat—from 36% in 1987-1988 to 33% in 1994-1996. However, only about one-third of adults had fat intakes that provided 30% or less of calories. Consumption of grain-based products, especially grain mixtures such as pizza and lasagna, continued to rise between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s. Among young children, consumption of fluid milk decreased by 16% since the late 1970s, while consumption of carbonated soft drinks increased by 16%.

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