The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

What’s in Your Pantry?

What’s in Your Pantry?

Health and Wellness

December 20, 2009

Americans are stocking their pantries with items that contain too much sodium and not enough calcium, lean meats and low-fat dairy, says a recent Rutgers study published in the December issue of The Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study examined 100 families with young children to help determine the food sources of calories and key nutrients in the home food environment.

“People eat food, not nutrients, so it was important to take a look at the food families have in their kitchens,” said Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Ph.D., RD, FADA, lead researcher, Nutritional Sciences Department, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. “If the food people have in their homes does not support healthful eating, it can be more difficult for families to manage their weight and avoid obesity-related illnesses.”

Overall, protein, carbohydrate and fat supplied about 15%, 57% and 29% of calories available, respectively, in the home food environment. Breakfast cereals accounted for the largest amount of calories, carbs, fiber, sugar, sodium and iron. The greatest availability of total fat, cholesterol and protein was derived from meat/protein foods like fresh meat and nuts or nut butters. Dairy products supplied a large amount of saturated fat and some calcium; all forms of fruits and veggies – canned, fresh and frozen – accounted for most of the vitamins A and C.

Compared to recommended levels, calcium availability was less than optimal, especially because of the increased calcium requirements for young children in this study. The dairy products examined here contained a large amount of saturated fat, so it is important, says Byrd-Bredbenner, that if families consume more dairy, they should consume the low-fat variety.

Unexpectedly, in terms of sodium intake, 38% came from grains – twice as much as any other food group – and a majority of the sodium-packed grain products came in the form of seasoned rice, noodles, couscous and stuffing. With all the recent emphasis on including more whole grains in our diet, retailers should help shoppers seek out flavoring alternatives for plainer grain products, and other products that might be lower in sodium.

Lastly, protein content in the home food environment reached levels well above dietary recommendations. Much of the saturated fat and cholesterol availability came from red meat proteins, so consumers should be encouraged to choose more lean meats, chicken and fish.

Interestingly, in a related Rutgers study commissioned by the Canned Food Alliance, researchers found that households with higher BMI (Body Mass Index) fathers got a substantial portion of their total fat and saturated fat from meats, both fresh and frozen. These households also contained fruits and vegetables with more carbs than in households where fathers had a healthy BMI. Moms are often considered the nutrition gatekeepers, however, this additional finding sheds some light on the role dads play in determining home food choices. Parents, say researchers, need to work together to make healthy, nutritional choices for themselves and their families, which is something that retailers can promote as well.

There is a silver lining, though. Regardless of household BMI, the food families keep in their home food environment is generally nutrient-rich, and supplies more protein, vitamin A and vitamin C than baseline amounts established in the Daily Values. As the home food environment likely has the greatest effect on dietary intake, supplying 72% to 93% of the food (by weight) eaten by individuals, this is good news – but there is certainly room for improvement.

“Since families are eating the majority of meals at home, it becomes increasingly crucial to make sure what’s on the menu is nutritious, even when time is limited,” said Byrd-Bredbenner. 

For more information about the Rutgers study, or if you’re looking for strategies for meal planning, pantry checklists and hundreds of easy and nutritious recipes,