‘Empty’ calories are those from solid fats and added sugars (SOFAS), which the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting, based on an individual’s specific calorie needs. But according to its ongoing What We Eat In America study, few Americans limit SOFAS as much as is recommended for good health.
The analysis of more than 5,000 adults’ snacking habits indicates that snacks provide about one-third (32 percent for women and 31 percent for men) of all daily calories from ‘empty’ calories, the researchers found. Average intake of SOFAS for men aged 20 and older was 923 calories per day – about two to three times their recommended limit – while the average for women aged 20 and older was 624 calories per day – about two to four times their recommended limit for SOFAS.
Researchers with the ARS’ Food Surveys Research Group, who conducted the study, said consumption of SOFAS is associated with increased caloric intake and decreased nutrient intake.
Meanwhile, market research organization Technomic finds that more Americans are snacking more often than ever before – with the proportion of respondents who said they snacked at least twice a day up 23 percentage points in just two years, from 25% in 2010 to 48% in 2012.
Technomic executive vice president Darren Tristano hypothesizes that this increase may reflect lower calorie content in restaurant and foodservice meals, as calorie labeling regulations have come into effect, leading consumers to find those extra calories between meals.
"Recent consumer research indicates that snacking is becoming a larger part of consumers' daily lives," he said. "Pressure from the nutritional disclosure legislation has prompted the foodservice industry to reduce calorie counts in meals. As a result, Americans are now more inclined to "graze" throughout the day, seeking snacks that provide fuel between traditional meal parts."
However, there is an upside to increased snacking, according to Rhonda Sebastian, the nutritionist who led the ARS research. She said that snacks now account for about one-third of Americans’ daily fruit intake, which in general tends to be lower than recommended.