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Food and Beverage Companies Unite to Cut Calories in the American Diet

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By Lisa Gable, President of Healthy Weight Commitment*

In May 2010, the sixteen major food and beverage companies who make up the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation voluntarily pledged to reduce the number of calories they sold into the American market place. Their pledge, to cut a combined 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015, was independently tracked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and verified by the University of North Carolina.

The companies, who made their public pledge to First Lady Michelle Obama before the national media in a White House ceremony were: Bumble Bee Foods LLC; Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods (includes Ralston Foods); General Mills, Inc.; Hillshire Brands (previously Sara Lee Corporation); Kellogg Company; Kraft Foods Group/Mondelez; Mars Incorporated; McCormick & Company, Inc.; Nestle USA; PepsiCo, Inc.; Post Foods; The Coca-Cola Company; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; and Unilever.

These companies adopted three strategies to meet the self-imposed calorie cutting challenge. They made significant investments in research and development to improve the recipes of several of their existing products; provided more single-serving offerings, such as the highly popular 100 calorie packs; and introduced a range of new low calorie products.

Earlier this year, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation made national headlines when Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced that not only had its members achieved the 1.5 trillion calorie reduction one year ahead of schedule; they had exceeded the goal by more than 400 percent. The 16 corporations had in fact sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories to Americans in 2012 than in the base year 2007.

This change should in theory have been enough to slow the rise of obesity, including childhood obesity, in the US. To verify the announcement and assess the impact on the obesity epidemic, a University of North Carolina research team, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, developed a rigorous methodology which drew on data captured from food and beverage sales at cash registers nationwide and the Nutritional Facts labels of items sold. This allowed researchers to assess product purchases and nutritional information by household and create a picture of the volume and sources of calorie reduction over the 2007 to 2012 period and verify the food company’s claims.

At a recent forum at the Newseum, Indra Nooyi, Chairman of PepsiCo and HWCF joined Risa Lavisso-Mourey, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to speak with Judy Woodruff about the outcome of the pledge. “We didn’t know what the other companies were doing until the calories had been counted by an independent assessor,” said Indra Nooyi. “You couldn’t do whatever you wanted to do and hope that someone else would pick up the slack. Each company had to make sure they were going in the right direction.”

Reesa Lavisso-Mourey added, “At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are true to our word. And you knew we would be here, being critical, if the goal wasn’t met.”

The pledge has been a unique collaboration which has driven real results for public health. Allowing for population changes, the HWCF companies have reduced the calories sold in the US by 78 calories per American per day. When smaller reductions from other producers were included, the total reduction rises to 99 calories per person per day.

These reductions are seen in every food category from sweets and snacks (-21 calories per capita per day), to beverages (-14 kcal). The largest percentage drops were in items like ready to eat cereals and granola (77.2 percent) and carbonated soft drinks (60.2 percent).

Recently Hank Cardello, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute and director of the Institute’s Obesity Solutions Initiative, examined the HWCF achievement and concluded that by doing good, the companies had also done well. The lower-calorie foods, he found, were “driving the growth in overall sales” of the HWCF companies. He added, “Making lower-calorie food and beverage items more available will increase both lower calorie and company sales.”

With their pledge, the 16 HWFC companies have proved that there is a new direction for the American food and beverage industries. Their unprecedented step has put American nutrition on a new and healthier path.

Lisa Gable is the President of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a CEO-led initiative aimed at helping to reduce obesity, especially childhood obesity, in America. The initiative is a coalition of retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants, sporting goods and insurance companies, trade associations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and professional sports organizations.