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The Need for a Closer Look at the Trillions of Calories Slashed from the American Marketplace

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Earlier this month there was a flurry of excitement in the public health community when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) announced that the nation’s largest food and beverage companies had cut trillions of calories from the American marketplace.  In 2010, as part of the industry group known as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, 16 companies – including junk food giants Coca-Cola Co, Kraft Foods Group Inc. and Kellogg Co. – voluntarily pledged to remove one trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015.

As has been widely reported, the companies cut 6.4 trillion calories (or 78 calories per person per day) from 2007 to 2012, exceeding their target by 400 percent.  To do so, the companies developed new lower-calorie options, changed existing products so they have fewer calories, and changed product portion sizes in an attempt to encourage consumers to eat less.  Although the researchers have not yet released the entire study (a decision that has faced some criticism), RWJF applauded the food industry and Lisa Gable of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation announced that the findings demonstrated a significant shift in the marketplace.

Although voluntary action by leading companies is certainly a step in the right direction, all the praise gave us pause. Weren’t obesity rates in the United States continuing to soar even as companies made these reductions? How much of an impact does 78 calories per person per day have on the public’s health? Here are some of the other questions we believe will be critical to better understand whether the industry’s efforts are a true public health success – or if they are being used to deflect public criticism and delay government intervention.

  • How does the reduction in calories translate into health outcomes?
  • Did companies truly make these changes in the name of public health – or were the changes in response to market trends and consumer preferences?
  • Could the reduction in calories merely reflect lower sales, which have been declining since 2010?
  • Could the reduction in calories be due to healthier eating habits, rather than industry efforts?
  • Should we be exercising more caution lest we conclude that self-regulation and calorie reduction alone will be enough to tackle America’s obesity crisis?

On their face, the results might suggest that failures in personal responsibility are the cause of the obesity epidemic – and that food companies are doing their part to reduce obesity.  At the same time, the food and beverage industry continues to aggressively market unhealthy products to children, circumvent federal guidelines from regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission, and lobby the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on recommendations for the newest version of the nation’s dietary guidelines. 

At the end of the day, industry efforts to reformulate their products undoubtedly show progress. But food and beverage manufacturers cannot simply “cancel out” unhealthy products that are high in sugar, salt, and fat by introducing healthier items or selling smaller portions. Rather, such voluntary measures should be one part of a comprehensive solution to obesity.

Given these outstanding questions, we look forward to final results of RWJF’s study before we can truly understand the broader implications of industry’s actions.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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