Why the Food Industry’s 6 Trillion Calorie Cut Hasn’t Made a Dent



In 2010, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), whose members include PepsiCo, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and many other large food manufacturers, voluntarily pledged to collectively sell 1 trillion fewer calories in the U.S. marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion fewer by 2015.

In September, a thorough study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) was released that found that HWCF not only met its stated goal but also exceeded it by over 400 percent. It read:

Between 2007 and 2012, the 16 HWCF food and beverage manufacturers met and exceeded their (2010) pledge, selling 6.4 trillion fewer calories from the marketplace in total, which translates to a reduction of 78 [calories per person per day].

The industry was able to achieve huge cuts by reformulating existing heavily-processed fare like sweets and snacks, shelf-stable juices, carbonated soft drinks, fats, oils, sauces, condiments and baked goods. In other words, your chips may now have less fat; your breakfast cereal may have fewer grams of sugar; and your chocolate chip cookies may be a little smaller.

One would think that a reduction in sales of 78 calories per person every day would translate into some measurable improvements in the health of Americans–perhaps a slight downward trend in the overall obesity rate? Not exactly.

Back in January, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest explained that such a reduction was indeed significant. “The whole obesity epidemic can be explained by an extra 100 to 150 calories a day,” she said.

So why aren’t we seeing evidence of these kinds of drops? According to the Trust for America’s Health and RWJF’s latest report, The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, rates of adult obesity rose in six geographically diverse states in 2013 (Delaware, Tennessee, Alaska, Wyoming, New Jersey, and Idaho). Not a single state saw a decrease. In contrast, the rate of obesity increased in just one state from 2011 to 2012. In other words, the rates appear to be trending up, not down. Yet the food industry is portraying their voluntary calorie cutback as a public health success story. The industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment website boasts this headline: Food Industry Leaders Finding Ways to Help Solve Nation’s Obesity Epidemic.

Meanwhile, Indra Nooyi, chief executive of PepsiCo and chair of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, has had no trouble claiming that that calorie cutback was having a real influence, in spite of the lack of evidence. “Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact…We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and nonprofit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress,” she told the LA Times in January.

Voluntary pledges have been the industry’s bread and butter in the fight against obesity and chronic disease. The HWCF has also voluntarily pledged not to target children with unhealthy food marketing, promised to remove high-calorie beverages from schools and recently pledged to reduce beverage calories per capita by 20 percent in a decade–a less than impressive promise that public health experts like NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle see as misleading. On her blog, Nestle wrote:

Soda sales are going to decline by that much anyway. Although the Alliance says the companies will do this through national initiatives to educate consumers about smaller portions, lower-calorie beverages, and water, and to focus these efforts in lower income communities, they really don’t have to do a thing. All they have to do is wait for these trends to continue. [emphasis Nestle’s]

Of course, it’s hard to imagine that the calorie cutback alone would translate into a healthier overall American diet since reformulated processed food is still a far cry from real, whole ingredients.

There are some interventions that are making a measurable difference in the health of Americans.

CDC data released in February 2014, showed a remarkable 43 percent drop in obesity rates among 2- to 5-year-olds from 2003 to 2012. This very young segment of the population has likely benefited from being the focus of targeted policy and program interventions including WIC nutritional improvements, promotion, and implementation of improved standards for day care food, beverage, and physical activity and, promotion of and an increase in breastfeeding, which is associated with lower childhood obesity rates.

Statistically significant declines in childhood obesity rates have been seen in cities and counties that have enacted these types of evidence-based prevention policies and programs: Anchorage, Alaska (3 percent), Philadelphia (4.7 percent), New York City (5.5 percent), San Antonio, Texas (6.6 percent) and King County, Washington (17 percent in school districts that are participating in a large-scale local public health initiative.) As CDC Director Tom Frieden put it, “This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic.”

Despite this evidence, food and beverage giants continue to devote considerable funds and lobbying muscle toward killing or weakening important nutrition-related legislative policies and regulations including healthy school nutrition standards, front-of-package labeling, calorie labeling, a sugary drink warning label, nutrition standards for kid’s fast food meals, and an updated nutrition facts panel that includes added sugars.

A soda tax of one or two pennies per ounce, which has already lowered sugary drink consumption in Mexico by an impressive 10 percent, has been derailed in dozens of locations in the U.S. by an influx of Big Soda dollars and vigorous industry opposition.

Indeed, if the food industry’s goal is to maintain the status quo, while appearing to work for measurable change, they’ve certainly reached it. But let’s hold back on the standing ovation for now.

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  1. alexis
    Saturday, October 11th, 2014
    We must be missing something here. The industries were actually more than successful in voluntarily making the reductions we demanded of them. We were the ones who insisted that would eradicate obesity and diabetes, and obviously we were wrong in making that simple-minded assumption. We are lucky the food industry is not rubbing our noses in our mistake. Undaunted, we continue to blame the food industry and demand more punitive measures. When a method fails the intelligent thing is to change the method. Merely doing more of the same thing, hoping for a different outcome is the very definition of insanity. The leaders of our good food movement need to lose the political agenda if we are going to prevent fat diseases.
  2. Nancy Huehnergarth
    Monday, October 13th, 2014
    I'm confused by your comment, Alexis. I never heard anyone say, and I know that no one believed, that an industry calorie cut would "eradicate obesity and diabetes." Actually, many public health workers and food reformers were skeptical that a calorie cut would make much of an impact because it just cuts the calories of unhealthy, processed foods. Consumers need to ditch the hyper-processed fare and get back to eating real, whole foods if we want to see a positive, sustainable change in the health of Americans. In any event, there's near universal agreement that no one intervention, alone, will reverse our epidemics of diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases. Many different interventions must be put in place.
  3. Thursday, October 16th, 2014
    Well, I'm confused by your comment, Nancy. I checked out this post based on the title, which implied that there would be some discussion about why cutting trillions of calories hasn't made a difference. Instead it turned into yet another attack on the food industry. If no one ever implied that cutting calories would help, then why do reduced calorie diets exist? Why is there a thriving calorie tracker app industry? Obviously something else affects obesity. Incessant harping on one segment of the food industry as the SOLE cause of the obesity epidemic is apparently misguided. What else could it be? Here's a hint: wasting hours everyday sitting in a car or in front of a screen is certainly not helping.
  4. Nancy Huehnergarth
    Friday, October 17th, 2014
    Donna, you're confusing an individual who cuts calories in his or her diet with industry's intervention, which resulted in the reduction of sales of calories. We have no evidence that a reduction in sales of processed food calories translates into the consumption of fewer calories by consumers. That's why there's no reason for celebration or posting of the "mission accomplished" banner. We do know that other policy interventions do translate into a reduction of calories consumed by individuals. Such policies have often been strongly opposed by the food and beverage industry.