A group of big food companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than in 2007, an independent evaluator said in a report on the pledge manufacturers made to First Lady Michelle Obama’s program to end childhood obesity.
The decline is a reduction of 78 calories per person, per day in the United States, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said in a statement.
The foundation, which funded the evaluation, said the companies’ efforts far exceeded their 2010 promise: to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace by 2015.
“It’s good news for both the companies that made these changes and for the American public,” said Dr. James Marks, senior vice president of the foundation and director of its health group.
“These companies are now better positioned than their competitors” to provide lower-calorie products, Marks said. The 16 participating companies include PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Kellogg and ConAgra Foods.
But what does it mean for consumers?
“The companies wanted to show they wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Marks said. The effort, led by chief executives of the companies and called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, “is not altruism. It is also being helpful to the companies themselves.”
The companies are responding to demand for products that are what the industry calls “better for you” — some lower-calorie and others repackaged in smaller portions, such as 100-calorie snack packs.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, author and frequent critic of the food industry, called the reduction a step in the right direction but added that it’s important to see all the data and to learn how the changes are playing out in homes.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement that its members had “accelerated our efforts to provide consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet,” including more than 20,000 products introduced since 2002 with fewer calories; less fat, salt and sugar; and more whole grains, as well as changes in labeling and advertising.
But critics say that the work of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation also helps companies avoid regulation and that calorie reductions don’t necessarily mean more healthful food.
People need to pay attention to the quality of their calories as well as the total, said Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian. “A 100-calorie pack of [cheese puffs], after all, is not a better choice than a 130-calorie apple.”
NYU’s Nestle noted that the country’s obesity epidemic resulted from about a 300-calorie-a-day increase across the adult population, and it’s estimated it will take about the same to reverse it. “If that’s the case, 78 calories is a step in that direction,” she said.
The changes are early and fragile, Marks said, but there are positive signs that the obesity epidemic is slowing. No one thing caused it, he said — citing reductions in gym classes, larger soda sizes and lack of sidewalks — and no one thing will cure it.