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Free Food at Work Often Not of the Healthy Variety

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Stephen Onufrak, PhD Epidemiologist, Obesity Prevention and Control Branch Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Atlanta, GA

Dr. Stephen Onufrak

Stephen Onufrak, PhD
Epidemiologist, Obesity Prevention and Control Branch
Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Atlanta, GA 

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: With more than 150 million working adults in the United States, workplaces represent a far reaching setting for chronic disease prevention and health promotion. While research suggests that workplace wellness efforts can be effective at changing health behaviors, little is known about the foods that people acquire at work.

In this study, we used data from the US Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey (FoodAPS) to investigate workplace food acquisitions among employed adults during a 7 day study period. The foods we examined included those purchased in places like cafeterias and vending machines as well as those acquired for free at meetings, social events, common areas, or shared by coworkers. They did not include foods brought from home by someone to eat at work themselves or food acquired by the employee at offsite restaurants. 

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings? 

Response: During the 7 day study period, nearly one quarter (23.4%) of the 5,222 working adults acquired foods from work at least once and the foods they acquired averaged 1,292 kcal per person per week. Acquiring foods for free at work was more common that purchasing foods at work (16.8% vs. 9.2%) and free foods accounted for 68.5% of all calories acquired at work.

The leading food sources of calories at work included many foods generally high in solid fat, added sugars, or sodium such as pizza, regular soft drinks, cookies or brownies, cakes and pies, chips, and candy.

When the diet quality of work foods was assessed using the 2010 Healthy Eating Index, results suggested that work foods were high in refined grains, sodium, and empty calories but low in whole grains and fruit. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The study suggests that a large number of working Americans acquire food at work and the foods they obtain do not necessarily align well with dietary guidance.

Previous research suggests that around 30% of employees have access to a cafeteria at work and around 50% have access to vending machines. Employers who offer food to employees in cafeterias or vending machines may consider implementing Food Service Guidelines part of their workplace wellness activities. Food Service Guidelines, such as Food Service Guidelines for Federal Facilities, translate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans into actionable recommendations for foods served in these venues. The guidelines ensure that healthier foods are made available for employees to choose and are promoted by the employer while still ensuring that employees can choose the foods that they like.

Since the study also found that many of the foods acquired at work were free, employers may also consider Healthy Meeting Guidelines, which encourage the availability of healthier foods and beverages at meetings and social events. 

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: As employers make progress towards making foods at work healthier, future research might consider examining the effect these efforts on the dietary quality of foods obtained from work.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the US Department of Agriculture.


Stephen J. Onufrak, Hatidza Zaganjor, Liping Pan, Seung Hee Lee-Kwan, Sohyun Park, Diane M. Harris. Foods and Beverages Obtained at Worksites in the United States. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2018.11.011 

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Last Updated on January 30, 2019 by Marie Benz MD FAAD