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14 | Agriculture Fact Book | Chapter 2

American consumers today have come to expect a great deal more of the food system…. There is no doubt that it delivers—more nutritious food with wider variety; improved safety, with less environmental impacts; and greater convenience than at any time

in the Nation’s history.

Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are consuming more food and several hundred more calories per per- son per day than did their counterparts in the late 1950s (when per capita calorie consumption was at the lowest level in the last century), or even in the 1970s. The aggregate food supply in 2000 pro- vided 3,800 calories per person per day, 500 calories above the 1970 level and 800 calories above the record low in 1957 and 1958 (fig. 2-1).

Of that 3,800 calories, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that roughly 1,100 calories were lost to spoilage, plate waste, and cooking and other losses, putting dietary intake of calories in 2000 at just under 2,700 calo- ries per person per day. ERS data suggest that average daily calorie intake in- creased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000. Of that 24.5-percent increase, grains (mainly re- fined grain products) contributed 9.5 percentage points; added fats and oils, 9.0 percentage points; added sugars, 4.7 percentage points; fruits and vegetables together, 1.5 percentage points; meats and nuts together, 1 percentage point; and dairy products and eggs together,

  • -

    1.5 percentage point.

Figure 2-1

Calories from the U.S. Per Capita Food Supply, Adjusted for Losses, Increased 19 Percent Between 1983 and 2000



Total food supply available for consumption1



Food supply adjusted for spoilage, cooking losses, plate waste and other losses2

2,000 1960





1 Rounded to the nearest hundred.

2 Not calculated for years before 1970.

Source: USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion; USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Some of the observed increase in caloric intake may be associated with the in- crease in eating out. Data from USDA’s food intake surveys show that the food- away-from-home sector provided 32 per-

cent of total food energy consumption in 1994-96, up from 18 percent in 1977-78. The data also suggest that, when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher calorie foods—or both—and that this tendency appears to be increasing.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, an astounding 62 per- cent of adult Americans were overweight in 2000, up from 46 percent in 1980. Twenty-seven percent of adults were so far overweight that they were classified as obese (at least 30 pounds above their healthy weight)—twice the percentage classified as such in 1960. Alarmingly, an upward trend in obesity is also occurring for U.S. children.

Although multiple factors can account for weight gain, the basic cause is an ex- cess of energy intake over energy expen- diture. In general, Americans’ activity levels have not kept pace with their in- crease in calorie consumption. Many people apparently are oblivious to the number of calories they consume. Calo- ries consistently rank toward the bottom of consumer nutrition concerns, accord- ing to the annual national probability surveys “Trends—Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket” conducted by the Food Marketing Institute. Of respondents in the 2002 survey who said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the nutritional content of what they eat, only 13 percent cited calories as one of their concerns. That compared with fat (49 percent), sugar (18 percent), salt (17 percent), and choles- terol (16 percent).

A variety of factors are responsible for the changes in U.S. consumption pat- terns in the last 50 years, including changes in relative prices, increases in real (adjusted for inflation) disposable income, and more food assistance for the poor. New products, particularly more convenient ones, also contribute to shifts in consumption, along with more imports, growth in the away-from-home

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