16 Companies Cut Trillions of Calories From Packaged Foods

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cafemama/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cafemama/

An effort by sixteen companies took 6.4 trillion calories out of food products in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (or, RWJF) funded the study, which found that the participating companies had caloric sales totaling 60.4 trillion in 2007. By 2012, it was 57 trillion calories. This represents 78 fewer calories per person.

The goal to cut calories from food products began in 2009. That year, 40 nation-wide food retailers, non-profits, trade organizations, and food and beverage manufacturers collaborated to form the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (or, HWCF). Working together through HWCF, the organizations and companies aimed at reducing the rate of obesity and childhood obesity by 2015.

In 2010, the calorie-reduction pledge was announced, and sixteen companies signed on. Originally, the sixteen sought to cut a total of 1 trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015. Products by the companies accounted for 36 percent of the calories in packaged foods and drinks sold in the U.S. in 2007, according to RWJF. In order to reduce calories, the manufacturers planned on decreasing portion sizes, developing new, lower-calorie options and lowering the caloric count on existing products.

The study was an analysis of sales, not of consumption, so it is unclear what affect — if any — the reduction had on American’s waistlines. How the companies manufactured the reduced calorie options could also ultimately play a role in whether or not fewer calories consumed will lead to weight loss.

If the companies relied on none or low-calorie artificial sweeteners to achieve goals, weight loss may not be a result. David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D. explained why in a 2011 edition of the Harvard Health Letter. “Replacing concentrated sugar with products that have very few, if any, calories should tilt energy balance in favor of weight loss. And some short-term studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may have that effect,” David said. “But other research raises concern that they may do just the opposite and actually promote weight gain. People who habitually consume them may wind up desensitized to sweetness. Healthful, satiating foods that are less sweet — such as fruits and vegetables — may become unappetizing by comparison. As a result, the overall quality of the diet may decline.”

Assuming the calories were removed in a way that does promote health and weight-loss, it is an important step forward in combating obesity. ”The range of calories that we need to stop obesity is about 130 to 170, approximately, per person per day,” Kathryn Thomas of RWJF told NPR. “If these companies are helping to take out 78 calories per day, that’s an important contribution toward reaching the goal.”

James S. Marks, MD, senior vice president and director of the Health Group at RWJF, is also heartened by the results, but warns that the effort needs to be maintained if it is to have a lasting effect. “It’s extremely encouraging to hear that these leading companies appear to have substantially exceeded their calorie-reduction pledge,” Marks said. “They must sustain that reduction, as they’ve pledged to do, and other food companies should follow their lead to give Americans the lower-calorie foods and beverages they want.”

Analysis was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina. First, data on products sold by the participating companies was compiled, then the products that were part of the pledge were identified and tracked. Barry Popkin, PhD, the W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Health at UNC led the team. He said the companies that were tracked “have a big influence over the foods and beverages almost every American eats and drinks every day.” Popkin added that the system created that allowed the team to track and analyze will enable to us to determine how changes to what’s sold influences what people consume.”

Full, peer-reviewed findings are expected later this year. Bumble Bee Foods, LLC; Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods; General Mills, Inc; Hillshire Brands; Kellogg Company; Mars, Incorporated; McCormick and Company, Inc; Nestlé USA; PepsiCo, Inc; Post Foods; The Coca-Cola Company; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; and Unilever all participated.