April 3, 2013
NEW YORKCritics claim a pledge by 16 major manufacturers to cut a trillion calories from processed food and beverages falls short of expectations, saying the goal of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation represents just 2% of all calories produced by the companies.
In 2010 these companies, including ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup Co. and PepsiCo Inc., among others, pledged to shave one trillion calories from products sold in U.S. retail outlets and vending machines by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015, when compared to calorie levels of products sold in 2007. The companies are members of a group called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Princeton, N.J.-based organization focused on health issues is sponsoring research at the University of North Carolina Food Research Program at Chapel Hill, to independently monitor this goal and examine the data to see whether, for example, the food manufacturers can gain credit for a cut in Americans calorie consumption or if outside forces also played a role.
This accountability research is a mammoth undertaking as teh school creates a system that examines the program "from factory to fork" starting with the sale and purchase of approximately 600,000 upc codes for foods and beverages then link those to dietary intake. According to Barry Popkin, Ph.D., W.R. Kenan, Jr. distinguished professor in the school of public health at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his team is trying to determine if this pledge creates meaningful results. Each year he says anywhere from 10-20% of current food formulations change and in addition, companies introduce thousands of new skus. He says his team is taking into account variables such as the recession and food pricing changes, and even the impact of ethanol on grain availability, to evaluate and separate out the industrys actions and their effect on caloric intake.
Did they really cut calories or did people have less money to spend on food? Did they improve the quality of our diets, or are we getting more sugar instead of fat?" asks Popkin.
Skeptics point out the pledges big central number represents just 2% of all calories produced by these companies. And on a per-person, per-day basis it represents just 14 calories, enough to lose just over a pound if permanently taken off the average adults diet and far short of the number of excess calories in the average Americans diet in the era of rising obesity rates, variously estimated at between 100 and 220 calories per day.
A Wall Street Journal article references Kevin Hall, a biological modeler at the National Institutes of Healths National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases who estimated the average American would need to shave off 220 calories per day to return to the average 1978 Americans weight.
Popkin explains the pledge began with a scientific evaluation of the energy gap in our foods measured by calories. The 16 companies that joined the pledge estimated that they sell approximately 25% of the food people purchase in America, given that consumer packaged goods constitute two-thirds of our caloric intake. The companies set the calorie reduction goal based on what people need to consume to prevent weight gain. Obese people who need to lose weight, said Popkin, obviously need to cut more calories out of their diets and he said, the original program intent is aimed at weight maintenance and not those individuals who need to lose a significant amount of weight.
This is the first time any voluntary pledge anywhere in the world has put a number on their pledge and had an outside group evaluating it. Thats significant," says Popkin. The work at North Carolina is independent of the companies participating in the calorie reduction pledge, and, said Popkin every six months an eminent group of scientists look at our methods and data to see if we maintain our integrity and scientific validity."
Due to the volume of foods and beverages that need evaluation, it is far too early, says Popkin, to determine the value or outcome of this pledge.
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