Changing food choices is not the only way to shift aggregate consumption patterns and nutrient intake. In an effort to compete for health-conscious customers, manufacturers often introduce new products or reformulate existing ones to capitalize on the latest health concerns. Such changes can offer secondary benefits; even consumers not looking for better nutrition may reap dietary benefits from healthier versions of their favorite foods and beverages. Calcium-fortified juices and breads are examples of such product reformulations.

Changes in trans fat content are another example. The FDA issued a final regulation for mandatory trans fat labeling in 2003, which went into effect on January 1, 2006. Manufacturers reacted to media attention and mandatory trans fat labeling by reformulating many of their products. The number of new products stating “no trans fats” on the label increased from 64 in 2003 to 733 in 2007, then fell to 642 in 2008.

Similarly, ERS researchers found that manufacturers were quick to respond to the recommendation in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that at least half of a person’s daily grain intake come from whole grains. The researchers noted that the average number of new whole-grain products jumped from 4 per month in 2001 to 16 in 2006.

For whole-grain products, these reformulations have translated into increased sales of healthier foods. Using Nielsen Homescan data, ERS researchers found that in 2001, whole grain products accounted for 11.1 percent of all pounds of packaged grain products purchased in grocery stores (excluding flours, mixes, and frozen or ready-to-cook products). By 2006, whole grains’ share of total grain product purchases was 17.9 percent. ERS researchers found whole-grain breads accounted for 6 percent of all pounds of bread purchases in 2001 and rose to 20 percent by 2007. Over this same time period, whole-grain cereals jumped from 30 percent of all cereals purchased to 46 percent.

As with processed food labeling under NLEA, public health advocates hope that calorie labeling will encourage restaurants to reformulate many of their high-calorie items to offer lighter, healthier options. The question is, will customers buy the lower calorie entrees and side dishes? Some observers are dubious, since past attempts to offer healthier menu items have not always been successful, especially when reformulating ingredients that influence taste perceptions.

An ERS review of existing research shows reasons to be cautious. In a University of Sussex, UK, experiment, low-fat labels on soups weakened participants’ expectations about taste. Soups with the same fat content were labeled low fat or high fat. Participants rated the “high-fat” soups as tasting more pleasant and creamier than those labeled “low fat.” In an experiment conducted by the British Institute of Food Research in a restaurant setting, fewer patrons chose the dishes labeled as “low fat.”

Such consumer response could limit the market for lighter options in restaurants. Examining the post-NLEA market for salty snacks, ERS researchers observed that food manufacturers introduced 1,914 new reduced/low-fat products in 1995 and 2,076 in 1996. The market for these products, however, never grew as anticipated. As a result, food processors dramatically cut their introductions of lower fat products after 1996, introducing only 481 in 1999.