Sixteen top U.S. food and beverage makers have announced that they have met their pledge to slash 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace ahead of schedule.
With the industry under mounting pressure for contributing to America’s obesity crisis, in 2010, the companies that make up the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) committed to meeting the 1.5 trillion calorie-reduction goal (which is against a 2007 baseline) by 2015, as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America.
HWCF president Lisa Gable led a press conference at Washington, D.C.’s Bipartisan Policy Center to make the announcement. She was joined by White House representatives, as well as former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Senior Fellow, BPC Dan Glickman and Tracy Orleans, a senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
HWCF also took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post to publicize the news.
The companies that make up HWCF are Bumble Bee Foods, LLC; Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods; General Mills, Inc.; Kellogg Company; Kraft Foods, Inc.; Mars, Inc.; McCormick & Company, Inc.; Nestle USA; PepsiCo; Post Foods/Ralston Foods, LLC; Sara Lee Corp.; The Coca-Cola Company; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; and Unilever.
HWCF said its progress reflects changes in food formulations and more low- and zero-calorie and controlled-portion options, as well as marketing investments in these products.
According to a Hudson Institute study conducted for HWCF, the initiatives also contributed to a combined $1.25 billion increase in sales of lower-calorie products across the 16 companies between 2007 and 2011 (82% of total sales growth), versus a sales increase of $300 million for other, higher-calorie products.
However, the results of HWCF’s calorie-cutting progress report remain to be verified by an independent evaluation funded by RWJF, an independent philanthropic organization focused on improving Americans’ health, which also consulted with HWCF in formulating the calorie-reduction initiatives’ goals.
That evaluation will be released in the fall. In addition, follow-up studies supported by RWJF will evaluate subsequent effects on children's diets, according to HWCF.
In March, The Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, wrote an in-depth column analyzing HWCF’s calorie-reduction goals and their potential relationship to reducing obesity levels.
Bialik reported that William MacLeod, a partner in law firm Kelley Drye, which was commissioned by HWCF to evaluate its members’ progress toward meeting their 2012 and 2015 calorie-reduction goals, explained how the 1.5-trillion 2015 goal was set.
MacLeod said it represents a calculation that this is the number of calories the 16 companies would need to cut so that if the same share of calories was cut from the rest of American food, and if exercise rates rose by the equivalent of cutting the same total number of calories again, then the total progress would exceed 100 calories per person per day — enough to at least start to reduce obesity rates, by some estimates.
Per the companies’ pledge, their results will be evaluated by Kelley Drye’s Economic Services arm, as well as by the RWJF-funded analysis, to be conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina Food Research Program. That program is building a new framework for measuring food sales and consumption in the U.S., which is drawing praise from other respected health research groups, according to Bialik.
At the same time, Bialik detailed various experts’ assessments of the HWCF’s goals and their views on how meaningful these are in terms of the ultimate goal of curbing obesity levels.
One key point: Those 1.5 trillion calories work out to a 14-calories-per-day per-capita reduction based on the U.S.’s 2007 population. One academic metabolism researcher termed 14 calories “a drop in the bucket” against the 220 excessive calories per day being consumed by Americans, on average, as of 2007, according to U.S. Dept. of Agriculture research.
“However, if the food makers do meet their pledge, it could amount to more than 14 calories per day per American, since the pledge was for a drop in total calories, without specifying a population adjustment,” noted Bialik. “Plus, since the food makers produced just a quarter of all calories consumed in 2007, their pledge could amount to more if it were matched elsewhere in the industry.”
MacLeod said that his firm’s analysts will be asked to evaluate the results both normalized for and independent of population trends.
Other experts noted that evaluation of the results could be complicated by the fact that the FDA allows calorie counts on nutritional labels to be off by as much as 20%. (Although RWJF’s Orleans is quoted as saying that she highly doubts that food/beverage companies would intentionally tweak their label calorie counts to meet HWCF’s calorie-reduction goals.)
A number of other complicating factors in evaluating the efficaciousness of the HWCF’s efforts in obesity-reducing terms are also noted in the WSJ piece.
But with few exceptions, even the biggest skeptics said that that they think that the HWCF’s efforts at least represent a start on the obesity problem.
“Food companies have an unparalleled role in determining what products are available on the market and what products are being marketed. And marketing works,” said Y. Claire Wang, assistant professor in health policy & management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“If similar initiatives come from other food companies, from restaurants, and from school and workplace cafeterias, the [reduced] number of calories per person may grow to be significant,” said Mark Schrimsher of the nutritional-information Web site CalorieLab Inc.