Expert Commentary

Effect of dietary guidelines on the demand for whole-grain bread

2010 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service on the impact of governmental dietary targets on consumer behavior.

Americans’ diets are as varied as Americans themselves — from classic meat-and-potatoes to veganism, from the “caveman” regime to fast food in all its cholesterol-charged glory.

Despite the diversity, however, overall trends have been anything but encouraging: U.S. obesity rates have been climbing since the 1980s, with nearly 30% of Americans now seriously overweight. To help Americans make better choices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has steadily issued dietary recommendations, and the latest attempt in this area has been the replacement of the conventional “food pyramid” with the USDA’s 2011 “nutrition plate” and its related site. But the overall effectiveness of such campaigns remains a subject of research.

A 2011 study from the USDA’s Economic Research Service published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, “Demand for Whole-Grain Bread Before and After the Release of Dietary Guidelines,”  explored if previous USDA’s guidelines have changed Americans’ food-consumption patterns. The study focused on the USDA’s 2005 guidelines, which — rather than talking about broad categories of food types — gave a specific dietary target: Whole grains should make up at least half of grain consumption.

This area of research is important because, as the study’s authors state, if the guidelines don’t achieve their goal of improving consumers’ choices, it could be argued that “public resources devoted to this program might be better directed elsewhere.” The study looked at data on the consumption of bread, which makes up the majority of U.S. households’ grain purchases.

The study’s findings include:

  • From 1998 to 2002, weekly bread consumption averaged 4.72 pounds per household. Of this, 86% expenditures were on refined-grain breads, with the remainder split between whole-grain and multigrain varieties.
  • After the publication of the 2000 USDA guidelines, which advised consumers to “choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains,” refined-grain bread purchases dropped 6%, while whole-grain breads increased 5% and multigrain breads climbed 10%.
  • From 2003 to 2007, weekly bread purchases fell, averaging 4.33 pounds per household. Of this, refined grains made up 75% of the total, with 17% for whole-grain breads and and 8% for multigrain breads.
  • Comparing consumption before and after the release of the 2005 USDA guidelines, which recommended that recommended half of all grains consumed be whole grains, refined-grain breads fell by 13% while multigrain and whole-grain breads rose by 3% and 70%, respectively.
  • While multigrain and whole-grain breads became relatively less expensive over the time period examined, price changes didn’t account for all of the shift in consumption, the researchers report. Consequently, the USDA guidelines could have had a positive impact on consumers’ dietary choices.

“One reason the 2005 whole-grain recommendation may have been able to prompt consumers to purchase more whole-grain breads is that specific advice on healthy substitutes may be easier for consumers to act on compared to more general guidance, such as limiting intake of certain nutrients,” the researchers write. “Combined, these findings suggest that dietary recommendations can have a non-zero impact when the message to consumers is clear, the change required to follow recommendations is small, and supply-side factors are aligned to facilitate consumers’ response.”

Keywords: consumer affairs, nutrition, obesity