Junk food. It’s one of FoodFacts.com’s pet peeves. There are plenty of junk foods we really dislike. High on that list have always been pre-packaged baked goods. You know the ones we’re talking about — cookies, fruit pies, cupcakes, snack cakes, pastries. There seem to be millions of them — from famous brand names, to the completely unknown that have found their way to grocery store shelves. Generally speaking any of the pre-packaged baked goods you can pick up in your grocery store will have far too much sugar and a very unhealthy dose of controversial ingredients, not too mention unhealthy fats. While commercial bakers may not have gotten the message that consumers are looking for healthier options from food manufacturers, Americans seem to be acting on their desires.
Apparently, Americans are buying fewer pre-packaged baked goods, including cakes, cookies, pies and donuts.
The researchers, led by Kevin C. Mathias from the University of North Carolina, note that ready-to-eat grain-based desserts (RTE GBDs) are a major contributor of energy, sugar and saturated fat to our diets, which likewise contributes to obesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been a major increase in obesity in the US during the past 20 years, contributing to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer – some of the leading causes of preventable death.
Because pre-packaged baked goods are packed with obesity-causing empty calories, the researchers say they are a strategic target for lowering consumption of sugars and saturated fats in the American diet.
As such, the researchers wanted to examine the changes in the nutritional content of RTE GBDs, as well as shifts in consumer purchasing behaviors.
To do so, the team analyzed nutrition facts panel information from commercial databases in terms of RTE GBD products purchased by over 130,000 households, according to the Nielsen Homescan longitudinal dataset 2005-2012.
After assessing the information, the researchers found that, though there has been little nutritional change in the content of pre-packaged baked goods that we bought during that time, overall consumer purchases of such products decreased by 24%.
“The results from this analysis show that the new RTE GBD products released in 2012 did not have lower energy, sugar or saturated fat densities than the products already existing on the market,” says Mathias.
He notes that reformulating existing pre-packaged baked goods comes with many challenges, including duplicating taste, appearance and texture.
The researchers suggest that creating new labeling systems featured on the front of packaging could steer consumers toward buying products with lower energy, sugar and saturated fat – which could help improve dietary intake.
Still, this potentially positive shift could also backfire, according to the team: “A potential concern of shifting purchases of RTE GBDs toward products with lower energy, sugar or saturated fat content is that consumers could potentially purchase more RTE GBD products if they are perceived to be healthier.”
Mathias says one way of getting around this conundrum is through “stealth reformulations by which changes in the product composition are conducted unbeknownst to consumers.”
But this brings another issue into play, as the American public is not typically fond of changes – whether chemically or nutritionally – made to the products they buy without their knowledge.
Still, the researchers say understanding the types of products purchased in the US is important in expanding knowledge on the effectiveness of efforts aiming to help consumers choose healthier dietary options. Mathias adds:
“The results from the product and purchase level analyses highlight an opportunity for both food manufacturers and public health officials to work together to develop strategies to shift consumer purchases toward products with lower energy, sugar and saturated fat densities in addition to decreasing overall purchases of RTE GBDs.”
We are hopeful that as consumers become more conscious the nutritional value of packaged foods (baked goods included) trends like this will continue. We have seen clearly over the last few years how the actions of consumers have moved manufacturers to change the way certain foods and beverages are produced. Consumers are speaking to pre-packaged baked goods manufacturers. Let’s hope they get the message.