- A new study found U.S. consumers continue to eat too many carbohydrates from sugar and starch, as well as too much saturated fat. The study, looking at nearly 44,000 adults from 1999 to 2016 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said 42% of adult calorie intake came from low-quality carbs, and that saturated fat consumption remained above the recommended 10% of daily calories.
- The U.S. and Chinese researchers who conducted the study did note some progress. There were drops in consumption of low-quality carbohydrates — mainly added sugar — and increases in high-quality ones like whole grains.
- Still, cutting down on heavily processed grains and snack foods with added sugars only amounted to a 3% overall drop, the study found. And consumption of healthier carbs — such as beans, fiber-rich whole grains and fruits and vegetables besides potatoes — only went up 1% during the period.
Although there have been efforts in the food industry to decrease the fat and sugar in products, consumers are still eating too much of them. Average total fat intake was up from 1999 to 2016, with half of it coming from saturated fat found in meat and full-fat dairy products. The study found U.S. consumers typically get 12% of their daily calories from saturated fat, above the recommended limit of 10%.
U.S. consumers are likely still eating too much sugar, salt and fat because many of the products with those ingredients taste good and are relatively cheap. Fang Fang Zhang, a senior researcher who worked on the study and associate professor at Tufts University, told HealthDay the reasons behind these dietary habits could be "partially related to convenience foods."
Convenience is a critical factor for busy consumers who want flavorful foods and beverages that are either easy to make or already prepared. This has helped drive growth in the snack segment and in frozen foods, but the trend has also played into consumption of more processed items that aren't as healthy and can contribute to obesity.
This is far from the first study to link these eating habits to health issues. According to a study earlier this year from the National Institutes of Health, eating ultra-processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt causes overeating and weight gain when contrasted with a diet of whole foods or minimally processed ones. Besides the connection between ultra-processed foods and weight gain, previous studies have linked them with cancer and even early death.
Education and outreach about healthier dietary choices may be gradually changing how people eat. Food manufacturers are often aware of the connections between ultra-processed food and health concerns, and some have reformulated products to achieve a healthier profile and respond to consumer demand for less-processed foods.
Nestlé said last year it was instituting bigger decreases in salt, sugar and saturated fats, and Mars has cut back on salt and sugar in its products. But it usually takes time and money for companies to reformulate products with healthier ingredients, and consumers don't always like the changed recipes.
Counterbalancing these trends is the indulgence factor, which has led some food makers to actually ramp up their sugar content. This is particularly true of cereal companies such as Post Holdings, General Mills and Kellogg. Sales declines have led manufacturers in the segment to develop sweeter new products to boost sales. But, as studies continue to show the health risks with these types of foods, consumers may avoid them in the future.
It's not easy to stay on top of consumer demand, especially since trends are quickly shifting in the food and beverage industry. The wild card may be younger demographic groups, which seem to be gravitating toward healthier products and whose purchasing power has made them an increasingly powerful influence on the market.