Big Food Shrinks Calories

Big Food has stepped forward to remove 6.4 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply, far outpacing a commitment to reduce processed food calories by 1.5 trillion in 2015. This finding comes from an as yet unpublished analysis, independently produced by  researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

A statement from RWJF characterized this analysis as the first effort to track all the calories sold by major food companies in the American marketplace. The 16 companies participating in the pledge produced an estimated 36% of calories from all U.S. packaged foods and beverages in 2007. The list includes such giants as Coca-Cola, Pepsico, General Mills, Kraft Foods/Mondelez, Nestlé, and ConAgra. The 6.4 trillion calorie reduction, said RWJF, could translate into a reduction of 78 calories per person in the U.S. per day.

RWJF senior vice president James Marks commented:

It’s extremely encouraging to hear that these leading companies appear to have substantially exceeded their calorie-reduction pledge. 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.

Experts respected for their quantitative insight into the dynamics of obesity in the U.S. were similarly encouraged and yet cautious about jumping to premature conclusions. Said Kevin Hall, author of a widely-cited study of the U.S. food supply, food waste, and obesity in America:

While this is interesting and a step in the right direction, it is important to point out that there is very likely not a 1:1 relationship between a change in the food supply and food consumption.

Said Diana Thomas of Montclair State University:

The effect across the population will not be uniform. The effect might amount to a few pounds on average over time. But as we know, it only takes a few pounds to improve diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For these companies to be proactive like this…rocks!

President Steven Smith of the Obesity Society said:

We support and commend what these companies have done. This intervention presents an important opportunity to assess the real world impact of a bold intervention on actual food consumption through careful research.

Even for folks in the habit of finding fault with Big Food, it’s hard to find fault with what’s been done here. The peer reviewed publication of this analysis, due later this year, will be essential for a full understanding of what we’re hearing. Sustained progress will be key, because part of what we’re seeing here is the effect of the great recession. The base year for trends in this analysis was 2007, the year before the recession.

But make no mistake, this is movement in the right direction.

Click here to read the statement from RWJF, here to read more from Reuters, and here to read more about the methodology for the analysis.

Bath Time, photograph © Gloria García / flickr

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