WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Aside from meat, Americans on food stamps spend the largest portion of their grocery budget buying sugary soft drinks, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The study, which was completed using data from an unnamed grocery chain, included 26 million U.S. families, including 3 million enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly called food stamps or SNAP. It found the average person on food stamps spends 9.3 percent of their total grocery budget on soda and other sugary drinks, the highest percentage for any broad product group other than meat/poultry/seafood.
Americans who do not receive food stamps also buy a significant amount of soft drinks, spending more than 7 percent of their total budget. Soda was second only to milk in terms of how frequently an item was purchased among Americans not on food stamps.
The federal government spends about $74 billion per year on SNAP and places very few restrictions on how recipients use the benefit. Beneficiaries are only prohibited from buying alcohol, nonfood items like cleaning supplies or medicine, and prepared food.
Nutrition experts have long argued the program is tantamount to a government subsidy for the beverage industry and should further limit the list of items SNAP recipients are permitted to buy as a means of promoting healthier lifestyles.
The beverage industry has spent millions lobbying Congress to reject such arguments and the USDA, which oversees SNAP, has steadfastly refused to wade into the debate. Administrators cautioned the study is not only a reflection on SNAP recipients, but Americans as a whole who consume too much junk food.
"Sweetened beverages are a common purchase in all households across America," Kevin Concannon, the U.S.D.A. under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told The New York Times. "This report raises a question for all households: Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?"
The study was conducted using shopping data collected in 2011.
Overall, it found most Americans spend about 80 percent of their total budget on grocery staples like bread, milk, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables and meat. The remaining 20 percent was left to the broad category of "junk food," which includes sugary drinks, salty snacks, candy, ice cream and other sweets.