U.S. Consumers’ Demand for Healthy, Nutritious Foods

Linda Benedict, Harrison, Jr, Robert W  |  12/3/2013 11:31:34 PM

R. Wes Harrison

Consumer attitudes and behavior regarding healthy and nutritious foods in the United States have undergone significant changes the past several decades. These changes have contributed to a growth in the consumption of “healthy” foods, as well as a growth in the demand for minimally processed foods. Healthy foods are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as items that belong to one of the major food groups – vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein – in amounts equal to at least half the portion size recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. In addition, healthy foods contain only moderate amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium. Less healthy foods are high in saturated fat and added sugars and tend to be higher in calories. Foods typically considered healthy include all minimally processed whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and seafood.

The increase in consumption of healthy food is associated with an abundance of scientific evidence regarding linkages between diet and good health. The rising costs of health care coupled with a high incidence of obesity and diet-related disease have also led to increased public concern about health and nutrition. The incidence of obesity has become a chief national health concern, particularly among states in the Deep South. The latest data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) place the incidence of obesity in the United States from 20.5 percent in Colorado to 34.7 percent in Louisiana. Thirteen states have a prevalence of obesity greater than 30 percent, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The prevalence of obesity among children across the U.S. averages about 15 percent, down slightly from 2003, but remains at levels for concern. The most recent state-by-state data on obesity rates for youth 10-17 years old indicated Louisiana ranked fourth in the country with 21.1 percent.

The primary economic factors affecting demand for healthy foods are changes in consumer attitudes regarding health and wellness, relative prices between healthy and less healthy foods, consumer incomes, and the availability and access of healthy foods in grocery stores and restaurants. Because the demand for food is affected by consumers’ knowledge about health and nutrition, and prices and income, the changes in demand for food are not uniform across socioeconomic groups or geographic regions. Consumer incomes, regional differences in food culture, the prevalence of poverty and public policy all play a role in determining food choices. For instance, consumers more likely to purchase healthier foods have higher levels of education and income, tend to be older, and tend to live in the West and Northeast regions of the United States.

Despite growth in the demand for healthy foods by some consumers, the average person in the United States consumes less than the recommended dietary intake of healthier foods. Figure 1 shows the average dietary intake by U.S consumers in 2011 compared to USDA’s recommendations for the major food groups. The chart indicates that the average American consumes greater than the recommended amounts of grains and meat and too little from the fruit, dairy and vegetable groups. In fact, the average American consumes less than 40 percent of the recommended amount from the fruit group, which contains items generally associated with the healthiest foods.

Other important factors affecting the demand for healthy foods are the relative prices of healthy versus less healthy foods. Some USDA studies suggest that healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, average as much as 22 percent to 44 percent higher in price relative to less healthy foods. This is an important statistic for low-income consumers seeking healthier food options. For instance, a 2009 USDA study found that a 10 percent reduction in prices of fruits and vegetables would lead to a 2 percent to 5 percent increase in the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables for households of four earning approximately $22,000 annually, which is the 2009 poverty level. The percentage of Louisiana residents with income levels less than 125 percent of the poverty level was 22.7 percent in 2012.

In 2012, the USDA estimated that 44.6 million people per month, or about 15 percent of Americans, received food assistance under USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Approximately 16 percent of Americans in the Deep South receive SNAP assistance. The percentage of Louisiana residents receiving SNAP benefits ranges from 9.6 percent in Cameron Parish to 38.4 percent in East Carroll Parish, with a state average of 19.3 percent. This amounts to approximately 868,000 Louisiana residents receiving SNAP benefits in 2012. Congress is currently debating policies that would reduce SNAP benefits for many low-income households across the United States. A decision to reduce or eliminate SNAP benefits would further reduce low-income household access to a healthier diet and would also negatively affect grocery and supermarket retailers located in areas with high SNAP redemption rates.

Education regarding linkages between a nutritious diet and good health, combined with rising incomes for some consumers, has significantly increased the demand for healthy foods in the United States during the past few decades. However, this growth has not been uniform across socioeconomic groups. Growing disparity between the wealthiest and poorest Americans has left the poorest Americans behind with respect to affordability and access to healthier diets.
 
References for this article can be found in the USDA report entitled Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure Price.

R. Wes Harrison is the Warner L. Bruner Regents Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness.

(This article was published in the fall 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

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