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Tracking demographics reveals where consumption of fruits and vegetables is highest in the United States

There are myriad trends and factors that influence fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States, including the changing ethnic makeup of the country, which bodes well for tropical fruits and vegetables as well as the of the produce industry as a whole.

An October 2011 report titled “Tracking Demographics and U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Patterns,” compiled and written by Roberta Cook for the University of California-Davis P1010671Piled-high avocados on display at an outdoor market. (Photo by Christina DiMartino)Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics, states that many factors have affected food-consumption patterns over the last 25 years in the United States. Ms. Cook explores these trends in detail and considers the effect of current trends on future consumption.

She describes numerous key consumer trends that affect food consumption. One is the consumer demand for foods of high and predictable quality that offer convenience and variety. Another is the growing demand for freshness and foods with higher flavor profiles.

An important factor for tropicals is consumer willingness to experiment both in restaurants and in the home. A major influence is the changing ethnic composition of the population, which has expanded demand for Asian and Hispanic commodities.

The growth in public knowledge about the link between diet and health — as well as the importance of maintaining physical fitness throughout life — are integral factors today, and this fits with the simultaneous trend toward higher rates of obesity.

The exploding research base on the specific phytonutrients and antioxidants associated with individual fruits and vegetables and their potential protective health benefits is another driving factor.

Also affecting food trends is the higher public sector profile and policy engagement on U.S. health issues to the benefit of fruits and vegetables, including through greater availability in schools and new nutritional guidelines like the MyPlate program.

The growing consumer interest in where and how food is produced is also affecting trends, and this has resulted in an increased demand for locally grown produce, regional food systems and organic foods.

Combined, these trends have influenced the mix and product form of foods consumed in the United States.

But Ms. Cook also points out that the changing ethnic makeup of the U.S. population is definitely favorable to fresh produce consumption. This is due to the fact that Hispanic and Asian Americans consume fruits and vegetables at higher rates than others. In 2009 households on average consumed $439 of fresh produce per year, compared with $695 for Asian Americans and $496 for Hispanic Americans.

In her report, Ms. Cook also states that fresh produce consumption positively correlated with income and education. Analyzing fresh produce expenditures by demographic group revealed some striking patterns. For example, households whose members have not attended college spent on average $369 for fresh produce compared with $521 for households with members with bachelor’s degrees, and $651 for those with postgraduate degrees.

The national average of annual household expenditures on fresh produce was $429 in 2009, while consumers in households earning $100,000 or more spent $712. Households earning over $70,000 per year represented 32 percent of U.S. households in 2009 yet accounted for an impressive 49 percent of total food spending.

In contrast, households earning under $15,000 represented 15 percent of the total number of households yet accounted for only 8 percent of food spending.

Her report states that the economic power of higher-income households has driven growth in chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Costco, and has likely contributed to a greater emphasis on quality in fresh produce departments among conventional retail chains.

While there are currently more households with the ability to pay for high-quality and value-added products, the recession temporarily decreased consumer expenditures on fresh produce and the willingness to pay for convenience.

For example, in 2008 supermarket sales of fresh-cut fruit declined by 14 percent in both quantity and dollars. Dollar sales of packaged salads were flat and declined by 4 percent in quantity. Fresh-cut vegetable sales decreased by 1 percent in dollars and by 4 percent in quantity — statistics that Ms. Cook gathered from The Perishables Group “FreshFacts,” which is powered by Nielsen.

By 2010 fresh-cut produce growth rates were again positive in both quantity and dollar sales.

A high-value category that continued to grow throughout the recession was organic produce. While less-committed consumers purchased fewer organics, a very loyal core segment ensured a robust growth rate, albeit at a lower rate than before the economic slowdown.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, Hispanic and Asian Americans have consistently increased their share of the U.S. population over the last 20 years, with approximately 50 million Hispanics representing 16 percent of the 310.2 million U.S. residents in 2010, compared with 7 percent in 1980. In contrast, the share of African Americans was flat at 12 to 13 percent over the same period. Asians grew from 1 percent to 5 percent of the population.

This speaks to the growing demand for tropical fruits and vegetables. These products are a part of Hispanic and Asian cultures, and like other cultures that have immigrated to the United States and brought familiar food ideals, so to are these new immigrants.

Ms. Cook notes that unfolding demographic and food trends are likely to continue to shift consumption toward more fresh and less processed fruits and vegetables, as well as toward higher convenience and differentiated products, including with specific food traits. This will unfold as consumers become more involved with their food choices and experiences.

She added that fruit- and vegetable-consumption growth will be more robust if income growth rebounds and higher education rates increase.

She also noted that it is imperative to encourage higher fruit and vegetable consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle among all age groups, but especially among younger consumers. Good habits reinforced early in life are likely to carry forward as people age.