[Agriculture Fact Book 98]

1.    U.S. Agriculture--Linking Consumers and Producers

What Do Americans Eat?

In 1996, each American consumed an average of 77 pounds more of commercially grown vegetables than in 1970, 63 pounds more grain products, 54 pounds more fruits, 32 pounds more poultry, 10 gallons more milk lower in fat than whole milk, 20.5 pounds less red meat, 73 fewer eggs, and 17 gallons less whole milk. In 1994 (the latest year for which nutrient data are available), total meat, poultry, and fish contributed nearly a third less saturated fat to the per capita food supply than in 1970, and beverage milk contributed 50 percent less saturated fat. Similarly, eggs’ contribution to total dietary cholesterol declined by a fourth between 1970 and 1994, and beverage milk’s contribution declined by a half.

Figure 1-1

A variety of factors are responsible for the changes in U.S. consumption patterns in the last 25 years, including changes in consumer preferences, 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 food market, expanded advertising programs, and changes in food enrichment standards and fortification policy. Socio-demographic trends driving changes in food choices include smaller households, more two-earner households, an aging population, and increased ethnic diversity. An expanded scientific base relating diet and health, new Dietary Guidelines for Americans designed to help people make food choices that promote health and prevent disease, improved nutrition labeling, and a burgeoning interest in nutrition also influence marketing and consumption trends.

Consistent with dietary and health recommendations, Americans now consume two-fifths more grain products and a fifth more fruits and vegetables per capita than they did in 1970, eat leaner meat, and drink lower fat milk. Many people have traded the typical high-fat eggs-and- bacon breakfast of 1970 for more convenient ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, most of which are fortified with selected vitamins and minerals. Moreover, a steady increase in the proportion of refined flour that is enriched (from 65 percent in 1970 to more than 90 percent today), changes in flour enrichment standards in 1974 and 1983, along with big increases in grain product consumption since 1984, have boosted per capita supplies of five nutrients lost in the milling process and approximately replaced by manufacturers--iron, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and, since January 1, 1998, folate.

The typical supermarket fresh produce department carries more than two-and-a-half times as many items today as in the mid-1970's. Increases in domestic production, rising imports, and improved storage facilities afford year-round availability of many fresh foods. Thanks to genetic research, today’s carrots and squashes deliver twice as much beta carotene (a nutrient that the body converts to vitamin A) as they did in 1970, and today’s grapes are much sweeter than years ago (and per capita consumption has tripled since 1970).

But contrary to recommendations, Americans are consuming record-high amounts of caloric sweeteners and some high-fat dairy products, and near record amounts of added fats-- including salad and cooking oils and baking and frying fats. Moreover, a hefty increase in grain consumption reflects higher consumption of mostly refined, rather than high-fiber, whole-grain products--less than 2 percent of the 148 pounds of wheat flour consumed per capita in 1996 was whole wheat flour. (Most nutrients lost during processing, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, are not restored to refined flour.) Potatoes used for fat-laden products like frozen french fries (eaten mostly in fast-food eateries), potato chips, and shoestrings accounted for 11 percent of total U.S. per capita fruit and vegetable supplies (fresh-weight basis) in 1996, compared with 8 percent in 1970.

Evidence from various sources suggests that the average American now consumes more food, more snacks, bigger portions, and more calories than in 1970. A 15-percent increase during 1970-94 in the level of food energy (calories) in the U.S. per capita food supply reflects higher levels of all three energy-yielding nutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. More calories, along with reductions in average physical activity (or energy expenditure), are behind an increase in obesity among adults, adolescents, and children in America. In fact, one-third of adults were overweight in the early 1990's, compared with one-quarter in the late 1970's.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates food supply (disappearance) data based on the amount of food available for consumption in the United States. Estimates of food for domestic human consumption usually are calculated by subtracting measurable uses such as exports, industrial consumption, farm inputs, and end-of-year inventories from total supply (the sum of production, beginning inventories, and imports). Accordingly, the data are indirect measures of actual consumption. They may overstate what is actually eaten because they represent food supplies available in the market and do not account for waste. Food supply nutrient estimates are derived from the disappearance data by researchers in USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP).

Today’s Per Capita Meat Supply Is Larger and Leaner. Now more than ever, we are a nation of meat eaters--but we are eating leaner meat. In 1997, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) amounted to 192 pounds (boneless, trimmed-weight equivalent) per person, 1 pound below 1994's record high and 15 pounds above the 1970 level. Each American consumed an average of 20 pounds less red meat than in 1970, 32 pounds more poultry, and 3 pounds more fish and shellfish.

Nutritional concern about fat and cholesterol has encouraged the production of leaner animals, the closer trimming of outside fat on retail cuts of meat, and the marketing of a host of lower fat ground and processed meat products--significantly lowering the meat, poultry, and fish group’s contribution to total fat and saturated fat in the food supply. Despite record-high per capita consumption of total meat in 1994, the proportion of fat in the U.S. food supply contributed by meat, poultry, and fish declined from 35 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 1994. Similarly, the proportion of saturated fat contributed by meat, poultry, and fish fell from 37 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 1994.

Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and veal) accounted for 58 percent of the total meat supply in 1997, compared with 74 percent in 1970. By 1997, chicken and turkey accounted for 34 percent of the total meat consumed, up from 19 percent in 1970. Fish and shellfish accounted for 8 percent of total meat consumption in 1997 and 7 percent in 1970.

Long-Term Decline in Egg Consumption Levels Off in the 1990's. Between 1970 and 1989, total annual consumption of shell eggs and egg products steadily declined by about 4 eggs per person per year, from 309 eggs to 237. During the 1990's, total egg consumption has leveled off, fluctuating between 234 and 238 eggs per person per year. Per capita consumption was 238 eggs in 1997 and has been projected to be 242 eggs in 1998. The record high for U.S. per capita consumption was 403 eggs in 1945.

figure 1-2 and 1-3

A decline in per capita egg consumption over the last few decades reflects two very different and somewhat counterbalancing trends: a dominating, nearly constant decline in consumption of shell eggs, and a partially offsetting growth in consumption of egg products during the 1980's and 1990's. Egg products are eggs that have been processed and sold primarily to food manufacturers and foodservice operators in liquid or dried form. These pasteurized eggs reach consumers as ingredients in foodservice menu items and processed foods--for example, pasta, candy, baked goods, and cake mixes--or directly as liquid eggs in grocery stores. Grocery store liquid egg products usually are made from egg whites and are used by consumers as a nonfat, no-cholesterol alternative to shell eggs.

Shell-egg consumption dropped from 276 eggs per capita per year in 1970 to 173 in 1997. The average rate of decline in per capita shell-egg consumption was 4 eggs per year in the 1970's and 5 eggs per year in the 1980's. In the 1990's, the rate of decline in per capita consumption of shell eggs has slowed to 2-1/2 eggs per year and is expected to slow even more.

figure 1-3

Much of the decline in shell-egg consumption since 1970 has been due to changing lifestyles (for example, less time for breakfast preparation in the morning as large numbers of women joined the paid labor force) and the perceived ill effects of the cholesterol intake associated with egg consumption. Total cholesterol in the U.S. per capita food supply declined 13 percent between 1970 and 1994, from 470 milligrams per person per day to 410 milligrams. Eggs contributed 39 percent of the total cholesterol in the food supply in 1970 and 34 percent in 1994.

Consumption of egg products has grown consistently since 1983, reaching the equivalent of 66 eggs per person by 1997. The growth period followed more than two decades of relatively level consumption, remaining between the equivalent of 28 and 36 eggs per person from 1960 to 1983. Egg product consumption will continue to increase as consumers opt for more prepared foods and as any perception of potentially negative dietary attributes of processed eggs is lessened.

Milkfat Consumption. In 1996, Americans drank an average of 22 percent less milk but ate nearly 2-1/2 times as much cheese (excluding cottage types) as in 1970. Annual per capita consumption of milkfat from fluid milk products (beverage milk and yogurt) has declined by half since 1970 due to lower beverage milk consumption and a trend toward lower fat milks. Americans cut their average consumption of fluid whole milk by two-thirds between 1970 and 1996, and nearly tripled their use of lower fat milks. But, because of the growing yen for cheese and fluid cream products, there was no overall reduction in the use of milkfat. Annual per capita consumption of fluid milk declined from 31 gallons in 1970 to 24 gallons in 1996.

The beverage milk trend is toward lower fat milk. While whole milk represented 81 percent of all beverage milk (plain, flavored, and buttermilk) in 1970, its share dropped to 36 percent in 1996. In 1996, plain whole milk accounted for 37 percent of all plain beverage milk, 2- percent reduced fat milk for 35 percent, and light (0.5-percent and 1-percent) and fat-free (skim) milks combined for 28 percent. In terms of average consumption, light and fat-free milks increased 25 percent in 1991-96, 2-percent milk declined 12 percent, and whole milk declined 15 percent.

figure 1-4

Total beverage milk contributed 50 percent less fat to the average American’s diet in 1996 than in 1970. In contrast, rising consumption of fluid cream products meant that they contributed nearly two times as much milkfat to the average diet in 1996 as in 1970. Per capita consumption of fluid cream products--half-and-half, light cream, heavy cream, eggnog, sour cream, and dips-- jumped from 9.8 half pints in 1970 to 16.4 half pints in 1996. On balance, however, annual per capita consumption of milkfat from all fluid milk and cream products declined by 36 percent in 1970-96, from 9.1 pounds per person to 5.8 pounds.

Average consumption of cheese (excluding full-skim American and cottage, pot, and baker’s cheeses) increased 140 percent between 1970 and 1996, from 11 pounds per person to 28 pounds. Lifestyles that emphasize convenience foods were probably major forces behind the higher consumption. In fact, two-thirds of our cheese now comes in commercially manufactured and prepared foods (including foodservice), such as pizza, tacos, nachos, salad bars, fast-food sandwiches, bagel spreads, sauces for baked potatoes and other vegetables, and packaged snack foods. Advertising and new products--such as reduced-fat cheeses and resealable bags of shredded cheeses, including cheese blends tailored for use in Italian and Mexican recipes--also had an effect.

From 1970 to 1996, consumption of Cheddar cheese increased 59 percent to 9.2 pounds per capita. Consumption of Italian cheeses quintupled during the same period, to 10.8 pounds per person in 1996. For example, per capita consumption of Mozzarella--the main pizza cheese--in 1996 was 8.5 pounds, more than 7 times higher than in 1970.

Average Annual Use of Added Fats and Oils Has Begun to Decline But Remains Near Record-High Level. Americans’ overriding nutrition concern in the mid-1990's with cutting dietary fat is apparent in the recent per capita food supply data, which shows a modest decline since 1993 in the use of added fats and oils. However, average use of added fats and oils in 1997 remained more than a fourth above the 1970 level. Added fats and oils include fats and oils used directly by consumers, such as butter on bread, as well as shortenings and oils used in commercially prepared cookies, pastries, and fried foods. Excluded is all fat naturally present in foods, such as in milk and meat.

Annual per capita consumption of added fats and oils declined at least 7 percent between 1993 and 1997, from a record-high 70 pounds per person to 66 pounds (fat-content basis). This 7-percent decline reflects the following declines in per capita use (product-weight basis): 11 percent for butter, 23 percent for margarine and spreads, 17 percent for shortening, and 35 percent for specialty fats used mainly in confectionery products and nondairy creamers. The only per capita consumption increases among added fats during 1993-97 were for lard and edible beef tallow (up 21 percent, or 0.8 pounds) and salad and cooking oils (up 7 percent, or 1.9 pounds). Lard and edible beef tallow are used mainly for baking and frying in the commercially prepared foods and foodservice sectors; supermarket sales of lard, which accounted for only 6 percent of total lard consumption in 1997, have declined since 1993.

The 26-percent increase in per capita consumption of added fats and oils between 1970 and 1997 is probably due to the greatly expanded consumption of fried foods in foodservice outlets, the huge increase in consumption of high-fat snack foods, and the increased use of salad dressings. The average woman aged 19 to 50 gets more fat from salad dressing than from any other food, according to recent USDA food intake surveys.

Average Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables Rises. As Americans increasingly embrace national health authorities' recommendation of consuming five fruits and vegetables a day, their array of choices continues to widen. Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, prepackaged salads, locally grown items, and exotic produce--as well as hundreds of new varieties and processed products--have been introduced or expanded in the last decade.

Supermarket produce departments carry over 400 produce items today, up from 250 in the late 1980's and 150 in the mid-1970's. Also, the number of ethnic, gourmet, and natural foodstores--which highlight fresh produce--continues to rise.

Table 1-1

Consumers increasingly have more access to local produce as well. The number of farmers markets reported to State agriculture departments has grown substantially throughout the United States over the last several decades, numbering around 1,755 in 1993 and eclipsing 2,400 in mid-1996. Some analysts say that the total number of farmers markets, including those not reported, is more than double that figure.

While the overall market for fruits and vegetables has expanded in the last 15 years, the mix has changed. Shifts have taken place among traditional produce items and between fresh and processed forms. Traditional varieties have lost market share to specialty varieties, and exotic produce has gained favor. For example, per capita consumption of iceberg lettuce fell by 5.4 pounds (or 19 percent) between 1989 and 1996, while per capita consumption of romaine and leaf lettuces increased 2.8 pounds (or 78 percent) during the same period. In addition, many specialty lettuces not yet tracked in USDA’s food supply database--such as radicchio, frisee, arugula, and red oak--gained in popularity in the last several years because of inclusion in fresh-cut salad mixes and in upscale restaurant menus.

Total per capita consumption of 80 commercially produced fruits and vegetables (for which ERS has U.S. production data) rose 23 percent, from 564 pounds in 1970 to 696 pounds in 1996. Four-fifths of this increase occurred since 1982, the year in which an expert scientific panel convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published its landmark report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer. The report emphasized the importance of including fruits (especially citrus fruits), vegetables (especially carotene-rich and cruciferous, or cabbage family, vegetables), and whole-grain cereal products in the daily diet, noting that these dietary guidelines were consistent with good nutritional practices and likely to reduce the risk of cancer.

Figure 1-5

The rate of increase in per capita consumption of processed fruits and vegetables, including potatoes, between 1970 and 1996 outpaced that for fresh produce--24 percent versus 21 percent. The trend is reversed and more pronounced, however, if potatoes are excluded. In that case, the rise in per capita use of processed fruits and vegetables other than potatoes during the same time period was only 18 percent, compared to a 34-percent rise for fresh items. These divergent trends reflect two important points. Potatoes constitute a significant portion of total estimated fruit and vegetable consumption--21 percent in 1996, down from 22 percent in 1970.

Grain Consumption Up From 1970's, But Far Below Early 1900's. Per capita use of flour and cereal products reached 198 pounds in 1996, up from an annual average of 145 pounds in 1980 and 136 pounds in 1970. The expansion reflects strong consumer demand for variety breads and other instore bakery items, and increasing fast-food sales of products made with buns, doughs, and tortillas. However, current use is far below the 300 pounds consumed per person in 1909 (the earliest year for which data are available).

figure 1-6

USDA’s nationwide food consumption surveys confirm the food supply data, also indicating Americans are eating more grain products. Consumption of grain mixtures--such as lasagna and pizza--increased 115 percent between 1977-78 and 1994. Snack foods--such as crackers, popcorn, pretzels, and corn chips--have soared 200 percent, and ready-to-eat cereals were up 60 percent. One of the biggest changes within the grain mixture group was the explosion of ethnic foods, especially Mexican foods. Mexican foods were consumed four times more often in 1994 than in the late 1970's.

Yet Americans are still eating a serving or less a day of whole-grain foods, far below the minimum three per day the American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends. If a bread does not have whole wheat, oats, or some other whole grain as the first ingredient, much of its vitamin- and mineral-rich germ and bran have been milled away, along with most of its fiber. Enriched flour, from which most breads are made, is not a whole grain. The processor has added back four of the B vitamins (including folic acid, beginning in 1998) and the iron that were lost when the wheat was refined. Some companies that make “light” breads also add highly processed fiber to boost the fiber content and cut the calories.

Beginning January 1, 1998, all enriched grain foods, including pasta, bread, rolls, flour, cakes, and cookies, must be fortified with the B-vitamin folic acid, which is also lost during milling. That should reduce the risk of babies’ being born with neural tube birth defects like spina bifida. It may also protect adults from heart disease and reduce the chances of cervical cancer in women. Folic acid is found naturally in legumes; liver; many vegetables, especially green leafy ones like spinach; citrus fruits and juices; whole-grain products; and eggs.

Most ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are fortified with folate. Fortified ready-to-eat cereals usually contain at least 25 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for folate (since cereals vary, check the label on the package for the percentage of the U.S. RDA).

Average Consumption of Caloric Sweeteners Hits Record High. Americans have become conspicuous consumers of sugar and sweet-tasting foods and beverages. Per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners (dry-weight basis)--mainly sucrose (table sugar made from cane and beets) and corn sweeteners (notably high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS)--increased 32 pounds, or 27 percent between 1982 and 1996. In 1996, each American consumed a record average 152 pounds of caloric sweeteners. That amounted to more than two-fifths of a pound--or 47 teaspoons--of caloric sweeteners per person per day in 1996. USDA’s Food Guide suggests that people on a 1,600-calorie diet limit their intake of added sugars to 6 teaspoons per day. The daily suggested limit increases to 12 teaspoons for those consuming 2,200 calories a day, and to 18 teaspoons for those consuming 2,800 calories.

A striking change in the availability of specific types of sugar occurred in the past two decades. Sucrose's share of total caloric sweetener use dropped from 83 percent in 1970 to 44 percent in 1996, while corn sweeteners increased from 16 percent to 55 percent. All other caloric sweeteners--including honey, maple syrup, and molasses--combined to maintain a 1-percent share.

figure 1-7

In 1996, Americans consumed 73 percent more caloric sweeteners per capita than in 1909. In 1909, two-thirds of the sugar produced went directly into the home. In contrast, more than three-quarters of the refined and processed sugars produced today goes to food and beverage industries, and less than a quarter is being brought home.

Sugar--including sucrose, corn sweeteners, honey, and molasses--is, in a sense, the number-one food additive. It turns up in some unlikely places, such as pizza, bread, hot dogs, boxed rice mixes, soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce, lunch meat, canned vegetables, fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, and some peanut butter. Carbonated soft drinks provided more than a fifth (22 percent) of the refined and processed sugars in the 1994 American diet.

{short description of image}Return to:
green dot
1998 Factbook Table of Contents
green dot
Publications Page
green dot USDA's
News and Current Information
green dot USDA ...