New study provides unprecedented baseline for evaluating food industry pledge to reduce calories
Jan. 17, 2013
A new study, titled “Food Companies’ Calorie-Reduction Pledges to Improve U.S. Diet,” published online Jan. 17 in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, provides an unprecedented analytic framework and plan for assessing future changes in the U.S. consumer goods food stream and measuring whether 16 food manufacturers, all members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), will meet their pledge to reduce 1 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015.
The study was performed by The University of North Carolina Food Research Program, headed by Barry Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition, and Meghan Slining, PhD, and Shu Wen Ng, PhD, research assistant professors of nutrition, all from Gillings School of Global Public Health at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which selected the UNC Food Research Program to conduct the independent evaluation of the HWCF commitment.
“An independent evaluation of this type has never before been undertaken, and its implications for tracking how industry formulates and packages its products are unprecedented,” Popkin said. “The consumer packaged food sector provides most of the food for America. Yet, it has often been overlooked – relative to the fast food sector and to schools – in efforts to tackle childhood obesity. The methods devised for the HWCF evaluation represent an important breakthrough in the development of techniques for monitoring the changes taking place in this food sector and their effects on Americans’ health.”
More specifically, Popkin said, these methods will make it possible for the first time to track the flow of food and beverage products sold, purchased and consumed and the impact of calorie reductions on the diets of Americans.
Evaluating the 16 HWCF members’ pledge provides a unique opportunity to advance the nation’s goal of reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. The pledge is the largest self-regulatory industry initiative of this type in the U.S. or other nations and the first to be independently evaluated. A rigorous, transparent industry-independent evaluation can point the way to future industry, research and public health actions with the potential to prevent childhood obesity.
The study is the first and most vital element of a five-year evaluation of the HWCF pledge. In 2007 (the baseline year for the evaluation study), 186.2 trillion calories were sold in the U.S. from packaged foods and beverages, of which a total of 67.3 trillion calories (or 36.2 percent) were from the 16 HWCF companies. Because the packaged food and beverage sector is such a large part of the food supply, the calories sold by these 16 HWCF companies is equivalent to approximately 25 percent of all calories consumed in the U.S. The study’s results offer great potential for incentivizing further industry change and will point the way to future actions needed to prevent childhood obesity.
“Creating this system is akin to sequencing the human genome in scope,” notes James S. Marks, MD, MPH, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Group. “It provides us with a never-before-available approach to follow the vast numbers of products in our food supply, how they are changing, and how they are consumed by children in the United States.”
“This study shows that over the past decade, consumers have purchased about a million uniquely barcoded food and beverage packaged products,” Ng said. “The products we see in the marketplace are constantly changing; one goal of our work is to develop a system to monitor these changes and how they affect the nutrition and health of Americans – both children and adults.”
Currently, no mechanism exists for linking the food supply with consumption.
“The approach we have developed will allow us to track packaged foods and beverages from store sales to individual consumption in nationally representative samples, something that has never been done before,” Slining said. “Moreover, the methods and measures developed through this evaluation have broad potential not only to improve surveillance of youths’ diet changes in the United States, but also to guide future research, action and advocacy to advance industry changes.”
About The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation
The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation is a national, multi-year effort designed to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015. The 16 companies that committed to the calorie reduction pledge are: Bumble Bee Foods LLC; Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods; General Mills Inc.; Kellogg Company; Kraft Foods Inc.; Mars Incorporated; McCormick & Company Inc.; Nestlé USA; PepsiCo Inc.; Post Foods/Ralston Foods LLC; Sara Lee Corporation; The Coca-Cola Company; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; and Unilever.
About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, agreed to support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents.