Headed to the store to stock up? Think again.

by Kami Semick

How America’s grocery shopping habits are adding to waistlines

As Americans, we are spending less and less of our income in grocery stores buying food to prepare at home.  According the USDA, in 2016 Americans spent an average of 6.4% of their household income on food purchased for home preparation. According to the World Economic Forum, the US leads the world in the lowest spending rate for food.

Source: World Economic Forum

You are probably thinking that’s because the US has high income levels relative to other countries.  More income means a smaller percentage of that income goes to buying food.  But countries with similar economic factors, such as Japan and France, spend more than double the amount of income on food than the United States.

An interesting overlay exists between those countries that spend the least amount of their income on food and the countries that have the highest obesity rates.  Nations spending less of their income on food have a higher obesity rates.  One explanation could be those with higher levels of income are buying and consuming a larger volume of food.  Maybe there is some truth to that assumption.  However, a deeper look reveals that’s not exactly what’s happening.

Source: World Health Organization

Peter Menzel, in his book Hungry Planet, embarked on a fascinating project to document through photos what families around the world buy and eat in a week.  And truly, a picture is not only worth a thousand words, but in one glance can explain all the charts in this article.   From China to Norway to Ecuador, the photos displaying a week’s worth of food are loaded with fruits, vegetables, dairy, fresh meats and whole grains.  Packaged foods are here and there, but certainly are in the minority, and typically of the whole grain variety.

Then comes the US.  A week’s worth of food adds up to a lot of packages.  Everything from tomato sauce to pizza, pasta and chips.  Sure, some fresh food, but a vast majority of calories come in the packaged variety.

This helps to explain another startling fact.  Not only are we fat, but as a nation we spend the least amount of time preparing our food – an average of only 30 minutes per day – almost half of the time spent by other countries in home food preparation.

Source: OECD

Americans are spending their money on cheap, packaged foods that they can prepare in minutes.  And when we shop, we shop in high volumes.  Over one quarter of all food purchased in the US is done through high volume low cost retailers such as Sam’s Club, Walmart and Costco.

Source: UBS

While a majority of the world makes a quick trip to the grocery store to replenish or to buy a few essential items, North Americans go to buy in volume.  One big trip to buy a lot of cheap food in packages that will last. Sound like a good strategy for buying toilet paper, but might not make so much sense when buying food.


It’s not as if we don’t have the money to spend on quality food, it’s we don’t have the mindset.

But wait, there is a little bit of hope on the horizon. 

In the last week, Nestle announced it is selling its candy business to Nutella maker Ferrero, so it can focus on more healthy food.  Last November Mars, the maker of Snickers, purchased a line of microwavable vegetarian meals.  And Hershey recently bought the maker of Skinny-Pop popcorn.

Those close to the industry are seeing consumer buying trends moving away from traditional packaged foods towards healthier choices.  Large companies are responding as best as they can by snapping up what they believe to be “healthy” brands.

Skinny-Pop popcorn and microwaveable vegetarian meals are not going to save America from obesity, but at least there is a glimmer of awakening to healthier food.

Bottom line is American need to figure out that health does not come in a package.