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A word of caution: understanding the broader cultural context of nutritional intake trends

Nutritional intake trends seem like an awfully strange portal to imagining the future of the packaged food industry. And we thought so too until we analyzed the results of the USDA’s What We Eat in America data from 2001 to 2014.

Macronutrient trends chart

Source: WWEIA, USDA; Hartman analysis of per capita daily intake values

If you see the core business model of packaged food in red, then you’re seeing exactly what our analysts did when this chart first circulated the office.

The largest single macronutrient increase in the American diet in the past fifteen years has been polyunsaturated fats. Most famously, it includes the omega class of fats. These are the ‘healthy’ fats found mostly in nuts, seeds, fish, algae and leafy greens, virtually all of which are growing categories in the supermarket.

This is, we believe, due to the fact that consumers are gravitating toward ‘natural’ fats in general and ones that do not come along with lots of carbohydrates (especially sugars).

This explains, in part, why monounsaturated fats are doing poorly. They are most commonly consumed by Americans in food forms that carry lots of carbs along for the ride: whole milk, whole-grain wheat, cereal and oatmeal (though some sources, like nuts and avocados, do not fit this pattern).

More interestingly, though, is the fact that total avg. per capita daily calorie intake has declined in the past fifteen years. And a lot of this decline originates from an overall decline in carb intake, especially sugar.

The American packaged food and beverage industry has built its business lines and brands on a business model predicated on high gross margin forms of carbohydrates and sugars (and fats). This is a well-honed R&D technical competency.

But it is not where food culture is trending.

Instead, we find that fiber and protein are growing along with polyunsaturated fats (most frequently consumed in fresher, less processed food forms).

It would appear that America’s real nutrient intake, not just its retail grocery dollars, is shifting toward macronutrients that fight against the margin model of the industry…at least for now.

While the temptation, as we’ve seen with the explosion of everything protein, will be to simply develop highly processed forms of these on-trend macronutrients that fit the old margin model, we caution leaders to step back and appreciate the broader cultural context in which these nutritional trends are unfolding.

Highly processed food has already hit its volumetric peak. Packaged food consumption overall is actually declining, as we’ve written about before. America is now in the process of recalibrating its collective diet within this context.

Those who can ride these unacknowledged nutritional trends through minimally processed forms (fresh and packaged) will be the real growth leaders in the next ten years.

And, if you are a category like dairy, where both the good and the bad nutrients lurk, then innovate to rebalance the ratio in line with where the American diet is headed and you will probably do just fine.


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Health & Wellness


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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