ERS examines economic, social, and environmental factors influencing consumers’ food choices. Food choices and diet quality are influenced by food prices, household income, economic incentives, and nutrition information. Other important effects in diet quality include family structure, time constraints, psychological factors, and Federal food and nutrition assistance programs. Recent evidence from the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the economy’s influence on diet quality and food choices.

Economic incentives and nutrition information

Food prices are important factors in consumers' food choices, prompting the interest of fiscal policymakers and researchers who aim to influence the relative prices of foods and promote healthier food choices through taxes or subsidies. Research on how fiscal policies shape food choices and diets have grown rapidly.

ERS has conducted several studies examining the effects of fiscal policy, nutrition information, and socio-demographic factors on food choices and diets. Recent research examined improvement in diets from price intervention and the use of shelf-tag nutrition labeling, based on a case study of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. Key findings include:

  • The demand for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals is “own-price inelastic.” In other words, the percentage change in the purchased quantity of breakfast cereal is smaller than the percentage change of the price of the cereal. So fiscal policy is expected to have a limited effect on dietary improvement regarding breakfast cereals.
  • ERS researchers studied the effect of a hypothetical fiscal policy lowering the price of healthy foods and raising the price of less healthy foods to promote healthier food choices. When the healthfulness of breakfast foods is evaluated based on nutrients and food components, a price intervention strategy may result in unintended negative effects. ERS research results suggest hypothetical price intervention would increase the caloric content of foods consumed at breakfast. For more information, please see: Lin, B.H., D.S. Dong, A. Carlson, and I. Rahkovsky. 2017. "Potential Dietary Outcomes of Changing Relative Prices of Healthy and Less Healthy Foods: The Case of Ready-to-Eat Breakfast," Food Policy, 68(April):77–88.
  • ERS researchers examined the launch of the Guiding Star Program (GSP)—a shelf-tag nutrition information program—on purchases of breakfast cereals at supermarkets. The program was found to significantly increase the demand for cereals that GSP considers more nutritious at the expense of cereals considered less nutritious. See: Rahkovsky, I., B.H. Lin, C.T.J. Lin, and J.Y. Lee. 2013. "Effects of the Guiding Stars Program on Purchases of Ready-to-Eat Cereals with Different Nutritional Attributes," Food Policy, 43(December):100-7. 

Socioeconomic Factors and Diet Quality

ERS researchers contribute to a growing body of work that examines how economic and demographic factors are associated with various aspects of diet quality.

Key findings are:

Do diets in the U.S. meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendations?

In partnership with the USDA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Guidelines). These Guidelines can help people living in the U.S. adopt healthy eating patterns that promote health and reduce the risks of major chronic diseases. First published in 1980 and updated every 5 years, the Guidelines use the latest scientific and medical information about individual nutrients and food components to recommend healthy dietary practices from infancy through older age.

ERS developed the Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System (FADS), which includes three distinct but related data series on food and nutrient availability. By comparing FADS data with dietary recommendations in the Guidelines, ERS researchers study how closely Americans are following the Guidelines dietary recommendations.

A 2017 ERS report found the average U.S. diet is below the dietary recommendations for fruit, vegetables, and dairy and above the recommendations for grains, protein foods, added fats and oils, and added sugars and sweeteners. See:

U.S. Trends in Food Availability and a Dietary Assessment of Loss-Adjusted Food Availability, 1970-2014

Additionally, two earlier ERS reports compared the food availability data with the Guidelines dietary recommendations: