Thursday, January 09, 2014

Big Food Corporations Fulfill Let's Move! Pledge To First Lady, Slash 6.4 Trillion Calories From US Marketplace In 2012

First-ever private sector commitment to campaign exceeds original pledge by 400%; impact on child obesity is unknown...
Washington, DC - Sixteen of America's largest food and beverage corporations have dramatically surpassed a pledge to First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to slash 1.5 trillion calories from America's marketplace, exceeding their goal early and by more than 400%.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced the news on Thursday after funding an independent study to confirm the results.   

The project was the very first private-sector commitment orchestrated for Mrs. Obama by Partnership for a Healthier America, the independent foundation that supports Let's Move!.  She hailed the pledge as "an important step forward" when unveiling it in May of 2010.

The companies include Kraft Foods Group, General Mills, Inc., Campbell Soups, Mars, Inc., Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, The Hershey Company, and Kellogg, acting together as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.  

The food giants produced 36% of America's processed foods--such as candy, chips, soda, energy drinks, canned soups, frozen meals, cereals, and crackers--in 2007, the baseline year for the pledge, amounting to 60.4 trillion calories, RWJF said.

They originally vowed to cut 1 trillion calories in the US market by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.  

But the companies sold 54 trillion calories in 2012, a reduction of 6.4 trillion calories from 2007.  It translates to "78 calories per person in the United States per day," RWJF said.  

Or about 6 nacho cheese Doritos chips from PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division, or 1 mini "snack size" Almond Joy bar from Hershey.

Mrs. Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, has not yet responded to the announcement, but Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass is excited.

"We are thrilled," Kass wrote in a post on the Let's Move! blog.

"Today’s news is another indication that a major shift is under way in this country in how parents and families make food choices, and we anticipate this is just the beginning,” Kass said.

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation President Lisa Gable first announced the news in June of 2013, but it took RWJF seven months to release the results of their evaluation.  

The study has not yet been published or peer reviewed.  RWJF was one of the founding partners for Partnership for a Healthier America, for which Mrs. Obama serves as honorary Chair.

The research...
Barry Popkin, PhD, the W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Health at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led the team charged with assessing the project for RWJF, which says it is "the first effort to track all the calories sold by such major companies in the American marketplace." 

The researchers used store-based scanner data for hundreds of thousands of food items from the companies, as wells as commercial databases and nutrition facts panels to calculate the calories sold.  They did not evaluate products from the companies that were responsible for the other 64% of America's processed food calories.

Popkin told Reuters he is not sure how the companies specifically met then surpassed their goals, though he said the biggest reduction in calories sold was to households with young children: "It seems to be parents who are driving the calorie reductions," Popkin said.

But Popkin also added that financial hardship from America's devastating economic decline could have resulted in consumers purchasing fewer products, which translates to less calories sold.  And PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are both selling more beverages with no-calorie sweetners.

When announcing their pledge, the companies said they would offer new products with lower-calorie options, change existing products so they had fewer calories, and change portion sizes to introduce more lower-calorie packaging.  Supermarket shelves are now filled with 100-calorie snack packs of cookies and crackers, and packages identifying candy as "sharing size."

"Leading companies are making real changes by creating new lower-calorie options and have altered packaging to decrease portion sizes to help reduce obesity, and this a solid step forward," Kass said.  

"These findings also show that not only are companies making changes, but consumers are leading as well as evidenced by their increased demand for healthier products," Kass said.

Still, Americans consumed an average of 300 more calories a day in 2012 than in 1985, according to a report from Trust for America's Health. 

The other companies participating in the pledge are Nestlé USA, Bumble Bee Foods, LLC, ConAgra Foods (includes Ralston Foods), Hillshire Brands (previously Sara Lee Corporation), McCormick & Company, Inc., Post Foods, The J.M. Smucker Company, and Unilever.

Child obesity rate has not changed since Let's Move! launched...
How calorie reductions in the sale of processed foods will impact obesity rates remains to be seen.  Eliminating calories from the marketplace is one thing, but moving the needle on obesity rates is an entirely different and complex issue.  Researchers have competing theories about why America's obesity rates have skyrocketed since the 1980s. 

"The next big question is how these changes to what’s available on store shelves actually impact the health of children and families," said C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, senior scientist at RWJF. 

Mrs. Obama will mark the fourth anniversary of Let's Move! in exactly one month, with the national prevalence of obesity in children ages 2-19 at essentially the same point as the day she launched her campaign in 2010, stubbornly stuck at about 17% or 12.5 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The Let's Move! campaign has pointed to a drop of 1% in the obesity rate among low-income pre-schoolers in 18 states and one US territory as the biggest success story to date.  But it occurred between 2008 and 2011, when the campaign was one year old.  Certain populations in metropolitan areas, including New York and Philadelphia, have had micro declines, too.

Success stories are hard to come by: Mrs. Obama celebrated the third anniversary of her campaign in 2013 by spotlighting a drop in Mississippi's child obesity rate.  She hailed a 13.3% decline in prevalence, not mentioning that it was just for white children in grades K-5.  It occurred over six years between Spring 2005, when Mississippi's child obesity rate was 43%, and Spring 2011, when the rate was reported at 37.3%.  

During her celebration interviews and speeches, Mrs. Obama also did not mention that the drop still left Mississippi at the top of the national list for obesity.   

The end goal of Mrs. Obama's decades-long campaign is to reduce childhood obesity to just 5% by 2030. 

Adult obesity rates remain dangerously high, and climbed nationally in 2013 to 27.2%, up from 26.2% in 2012, according to Gallup Healthways tracking, which noted the uptick as statistically significant and the largest year-over-year increase since 2009.   

Gallup Healthways also reported that Americans' eating habits deteriorated in 2013, with fewer adults reporting eating healthy all day "yesterday" in every month through November compared with the same months in 2012.  Produce consumption was markedly down, according to polling results.

RWJF has said it will conduct a follow-up studie that will "evaluate subsequent effects on children's diets" from consuming lower-calorie food products.

Financial benefits of "healthier" processed food...
While encouraging gardening and the consumption of fresh produce, Mrs. Obama has also devoted much time in her campaign to encouraging corporations to offer healthier processed food, arguing that it can be a financially profitable move.  Both she and Kass have stressed this is in public remarks.  And Mrs. Obama penned an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal in February of 2013, titled "The Business Case for Healthier Food Options."

"Every day, great American companies are achieving greater and greater success by creating and selling healthy products. In doing so, they are showing that what's good for kids and good for family budgets can also be good for business," Mrs. Obama wrote.

In its press release about the calorie pledge, RWJF flagged its own 2011 study about the profitability of "good-for-you" products.  "Between 2007 and 2011, better-for-you, lower-calorie foods and beverages also drove financial performance for many of these same companies," RWJF said.

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation has released a report it funded conducted by the Hudson Institute that shows that between 2007-2011, "lower calorie products drove 82 percent of the sales growth among the HWCF member food and beverage companies studied, over four times the rate of higher-calorie products."

In his post about the calorie reduction project, Kass asked companies to build on the news:  "Food and beverage industries should use this momentum to continue their efforts to stock shelves with healthier options and encourage other companies to follow suit," he said.

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation predates the launch of Let's Move! in February 2010.  It was formed in October of 2009, with the goal of "helping to reduce obesity, especially childhood obesity, by 2015."  Members include "more than 40 of the nation’s largest retailers, non-profit organizations, food and beverage manufacturers and trade associations," according to the organization.

But the operating principle of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation is that Americans simply consume too many calories.  The group developed a formula for what it calls "Energy Balance," which encourages people to monitor the calories they consume and the calories they expend while doing physical activity, in order to achieve "an optimal balance" that leads to a healthy weight.

The unspoken message behind this is that Americans can drink all the soda they desire, and eat their fill of junk food, if they just exercise enough to "balance" out the calorie consumption.

Kass blasted this approach during a speech to executives from America's largest food corporations in July of 2013.

"Simply claiming that there are calories in and calories out, tweaking a little bit and passing out some sport equipment is not going to be enough going forward," Kass declared, as he called on food corporations to get far more aggressive in the child obesity battle.


The press release from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is here.

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; Mrs. Obama was visiting a supermarket in Torrance, California in 2012