Less Soda, But More Chips: How We Eat Is a Mixed Bag

Our craving for on-the-go is feeding the industrial food system and hurting our waistlines

Recent data show that chips and other grab-and-go convenience foods were the fastest-growing segment of Americans' diet between 2001 and 2011. (Photo by: Bloomberg / Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

As a nation, we’ve made great strides in recent years in the way we eat. The last decade’s food revolution has brought words like “organic,” “locavore,” “farm-fresh,” and “industrial food system” into the lexicon of average Americans. There’s a perception that most of us are increasingly aware of the realities of our food system and its impact on our health and planet—and that we are changing our practices as a result: cooking at home more, shunning cheap, processed foods, sitting down as families more.

And then we see reports like this in the current issue of Advertising Age and our gleaming perceptions are greatly diminished by reality. Among Ad Age's findings—which were pulled together from a number of food industry sources—here are a few of the more notable ones:

It’s All About Grab-and-Go

Americans are buying on-the-go foods like yogurt, cereal bars, nuts, and bottled water at an unprecedented rate, according to a recently released report by The NPD Group, a global information and advisory services company. The fastest-growing foods in America, according to the study:

  1. yogurt
  2. bars
  3. chips
  4. bottled water
  5. nuts and seeds
  6. pizza
  7. fresh fruit
  8. poultry sandwich
  9. specialty Italian (Italian dishes not including spaghetti, lasagna, and ravioli)
  10. cheese

Ad Age noted that of these 10 foods, only two—pizza and pasta—can be heated up.

New York City dietitian Lisa R. Young points to the ubiquitous nature of snack foods today compared to even 20 years ago. “We never used to see chips sold in drug stores, and now we do. They are placed right in front of our noses,” she says. “I find in my experience with clients that unless they make a big effort, they eat what is readily available, cheap, and easy to carry.”

Ramen? A Cheese Sandwich? Those Take Too Long!

The list of America’s fastest-declining foods is full of items previously considered convenience foods, but which are clearly now too laborious for most of us. Notice that, with few exceptions, most of these take only several minutes to prepare. Here’s the list:

  1. carbonated beverages
  2. milk
  3. peas
  4. fruit juice
  5. corn
  6. sausage sandwich
  7. cheese sandwich
  8. beef
  9. stuffing
  10. flavored noodles

We Demand Variety, Even in Our Junk Food

“But as we seek convenience,” writes E.J. Schultz in Advertising Age, “we also crave complexity, looking for the same bursts of flavors in a bag of chips as we get at a fine restaurant.” Schultz points to the sheer number of individual items sold in grocery stores today: 38,000, compared to just over 10,000 in 1977.

On the other end of the spectrum are a handful of elite food shoppers who prefer natural and organic specialty foods and are participating in what SAI Marketing calls "food one-upmanship" with their peers. These shoppers, who earn over $100,000 per year on average, comprise around 16 percent of the population and seek the best in their food because it forms "a core part of their self-perception," according to SAI senior director of strategic marketing Bill Melnick.

The Good News: Less Soda and Beef

The news wasn’t all bad, of course. Between 2001 and 2011, we decreased our soda intake by seven percentage points—the fastest declining item on the list. This is, of course, great news, given what we know about how most carbonated beverages damage the body: They are linked to obesity and diabetes, and the high-fructose corn syrup may even make children stupid.

We’re also eating considerably less beef, which is, of course, good for our bodies and our planet.

But the rapid rise of convenience foods and apparent decline of home cooking is disappointing for many who have been a part of the food revolution in recent years. Age and economics likely play a big part in these statistics, however. The NPD Group reported this week that college students, who typically have less discretionary income to spend on food, made 351.4 million visits to convenience stores, spending approximately $5.2 billion there in the 12 months ending June 2012. That amounts to a 15 percent increase in convenience store business from college-age adults from the year before.

And as The New York Times reported last week, many of those displaced by or without electricity from Superstorm Sandy are now feeling the effects of eating mostly quick, processed snacks for two weeks straight. Many people are reporting gaining the “Sandy Five”—comparable to the Freshman 15 in college—from eating less perishable items like candy, cookies, and chips during and after the storm.

“As a result of the devastation, in my experience with clients, people feel they have bigger issues to deal with then watching weight,” says dietitian Lisa R. Young. “Hence, no surprise that people may be packing on pounds. And again, junk food is ready to grab and eat. The calories add up...fast.”

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