Prepare to be shocked: There’s some good news on the frontlines of the obesity crisis (and possibly your own, highly personal War on Weight). While there has been little change in the nutritional content of pre-packaged consumer baked goods manufactured between 2005 and 2012, one University of North Carolina study discovered that consumer purchases of these products declined by nearly a quarter during that period. Surprisingly, we bought 24 percent less cakes, pies, cookies, and doughnuts in 2012 than we did during 2005.

"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 towards products with lower energy, sugar, and saturated fat densities in addition to decreasing overall purchases of [these products]," said Dr. Kevin C. Mathias, a recent graduate of the Nutrition Department at UNC.

Empty Calories

Pre-packaged consumer baked goods, such as pastries, cookies, cakes, pies, and doughnuts, are referred to by scientists as ready-to-eat grain-based desserts (RTE GBDs). Taken as a whole, these products contribute a significant amount of sugar and saturated fat to Americans' diets and so health officials often target RTE GBDs as "empty calories" — these delicious foods are not just unnecessary to your diet but also destructive to your health. For this reason, it is important for researchers to track exactly what people are purchasing and how their supermarket decisions may be changing over time.

For the current study, the researchers obtained data from a sample of 134,128 households included in the Nielsen Homescan panel between 2005 and 2012. This dataset includes all purchases of foods and beverages made by the participating households from supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores, and other food retail outlets. After crunching the numbers and analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that what’s going into these products hasn’t changed much during the time period. From a nutrition perspective, the newest products coming to market were not much better than their aging counterparts.

"The new RTE GBD products released in 2012 did not have lower energy, sugar, or saturated fat densities than the products already existing," stated Mathias. This may be expected, since reformulating an existing RTE GBD into a healthier product presents many hurdles for manufacturers.

Surprisingly, though, household purchases of these products decreased by 24 percent from 2005 to 2012. “Decreases in marketing of baked goods to children, adolescents, and all consumers were reported between 2006 and 2009,” wrote the authors in their study.

Sadly, the picture derived from the study may not be complete. “A limitation of this study is that changes in the package size of products and shelf space given to products cannot be monitored using information from Nielsen or NFP labels,” noted the authors.

On the public health side, the authors believe there is room for improvement. They suggest front-of-package labels — instead of difficult to find descriptions of ingredients and nutritional content — could help consumers shift their purchasing towards products with lower sugar and saturated fat content. Not only would diets improve, the number of people facing obesity might also plunge.

Source: Mathias KC, Ng SW, Popkin B. Monitoring Changes in the Nutritional Content of Ready-To-Eat Grain-Based Dessert Products Manufactured and Purchased between 2005 and 2012. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014.