American consumers are paying more attention to nutrition information and eating better overall, according to a new report out Thursday from the USDA Economic Research Service.
The report, Changes in Eating Patterns and Diet Quality Among Working-Age Adults, 2005-2010, also shows that Americans are consuming fewer calories from fat and saturated fat, are consuming less cholesterol and are eating more fiber.
A contributor to better diet quality, says Jessica Todd, report author and USDA economist, is reduced consumption of food away from home among working age adults.
Her research found that calories consumed through FAFH dropped by 127 calories per day during 2007-2009, and the average person ate three fewer meals and 1.5 fewer snacks per month away from home. Eating at home more often was also associated with more frequent family meals.
Overall, about 20% of the improvements in diet quality can be attributed to the decreased FAFH consumption, Todd said.
"I saw the quality of both food at home and food away from home increase," she said, noting that individuals were more likely to be paying attention to and use nutrition information when shopping for food, as well.
Nutrition facts panel utilized more frequently
Specifically, the research found that 42% of working age adults and 57% of older adults reported using the Nutrition Facts Panel most or all of the time when making food choices.
When asked about nutrition information in restaurants, 76% of working-age adults reported that they would use the information if it were available.
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"Information is a core foundation of how people are going to make their decision," noted Sam Kass, White House senior policy advisory for nutrition policy. "The nutrition facts panel is the most important place that consumers are getting their information, and the FDA is currently working on, and is close to releasing a proposal, to update that panel for the first time really since 1970s."
Kass said nutrition panel information hasn't in the past received a major overhaul geared toward helping consumers make better choices and understand the information, but the FDA proposal hopes to change that.
There are also efforts across the private sector to provide people with more information, Kass said, and informed consumers are driving those changes. Major retailers are moving toward limiting the amount of sodium, sugar and calories that are in their products.
When you put new labels and product formulation changes together, Kass explained, "you are going to start to have real measureable results like we are seeing."
Americans' attitudes about nutrition are changing
The report also indicates changing attitudes toward food and nutrition. Compared with 2007, the percentage of working-age adults who believed they have the ability to change their body weight increased by three percentage points in 2010.
During the same time period, the report shows there was little change in the importance that price played when making choices at the grocery store, but working-age adults placed increased importance on nutrition when choosing items to purchase.
"When individuals believe that their actions directly affect their body weight, they might be more inclined to make healthier food choices," Todd noted.
Kass said the research shows growing importance of programs like Let's Move and other collective efforts that help consumers make better food choices.
"I think this is yet another one of those points to show that there is a real shift underway," Kass said. "This is something that the entire country has to own and lead on if we are going to solve these problems."
For more, check out the full study, Changes in Eating Patterns and Diet Quality Among Working-Age Adults, 2005-2010.