Today's consumers are buying lower-fat foods, but they still enjoy eating at fast food outlets, according to studies from USDA and CDC. While this may sound confusing, it points to the complex relationships that people have with food and their reasons for choosing a particular food, whether it be health, convenience or indulgence.
The USDA report found that Americans are purchasing more low-fat foods than they did 35 years ago, regardless if the food is for at-home or away-from-home consumption. Away-from-home includes foods from full-service restaurants, fast-food chains, vending machines and other sources. Additionally, the analysis found that between 1977-78 and 2011-14, the fat content of at-home foods consumed by U.S. consumers declined more than the fat content of away-from-home foods.
In terms of fast food's popularity, one in three U.S. adults eats fast food on any given day, according to CDC. But men and women's preferences differ. Men are more likely than women to eat fast food at lunch, but women are more likely to report eating fast food as a snack. Specifically, 48.3% of men eat fast food during lunch, compared to 39.1% of women, while 25.7% of women consume fast food from snacks, compared to 19.5% of men.
But generally, consumers are most likely to visit a fast food restaurant for lunch and dinner, at 43.7% and 42%, respectively, followed by breakfast, at 22.7%, and for a snack, at 22.6%. This may be due to consumers seeking out fast food because of its convenience.
But this means different things to the genders. While men tend to eat fast food for a meal, especially in the middle of the day, women are more likely to seek out fast food for a smaller bite, which could probably happen any time of day. In addition, the percentage of adults who consumed fast food decreased with age, while increasing with higher family income.
The idea of consumers buying lower-fat foods factors in when we look at the choices that consumers may be making at fast food restaurants. This can include choosing a grilled chicken sandwich instead of fried chicken or having a smaller portion size of fries. The prevalence of fast food chains labeling the calories in each food on the menu may have had an effect as well, as putting calorie counts front and center may lead to Americans making more health-conscious purchases and motivate fast food chains to develop lower-fat products.
Overall, though, the fat content of fast food changed very little, from 41.1% of calories in 1977-78 to 39.1% in 2011-14. While consumers may be more likely to seek out healthier items at fast food restaurants, higher-fat items are still popular, and it's unlikely they'll be going away anytime soon.
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Sarah writes for the weekly Food Institute Report and the daily news update, Today in Food. She also writes and edits the Food Institute’s annual publication The Food Industry Review and assists with The Demographics of Consumer Food Spending.
Sarah has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor, with a well-rounded knowledge of the food industry and business-to-business research content. Her background includes an editorial role at Convenience Store News magazine, and she has worked for Nielsen, the USA Today Network and Bauer Publishing.
Sarah is currently working on her MBA at Rutgers University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about anything food-related.
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