PRINCETON, N.J. — In January 2009, an initiative was launched by 16 food and beverage companies to reduce obesity rates by cutting the number of calories in the marketplace. The goal was to cut 12% of excess calories by 2012, and the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation said recently the companies have exceeded that goal, eliminating more than 60% of excess calories. Along with the announcement, the H.W.C.F. said an evaluation of the progress would be conducted and released later in the year.
On Sept. 17, an independent, interim review of the initiative was published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine and was written by a group of researchers including Shu Wen Ng, Meghan M. Slining and Barry M. Popkin, all of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The review confirmed that companies have removed 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace, exceeding their pledge to remove 1.5 trillion by 2015.
Many have applauded the success of the effort, even before the evaluation was released.
“America’s food and beverage companies are committed to a genuine partnership with the First Lady to help reverse the trend of childhood obesity within a generation,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.), in response to the May announcement. “Everyone has a role to play if we are to win the battle over obesity in this country, including industry. We embrace this responsibility and we promise to continually improve.”
Critics have voiced concerns over the validity and reasonability of the claims and pledges. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Advertising Age in January that this may have been due to marketplace changes rather than proactive changes by companies.
“Are Americans just drinking less soda and switching away from some junk foods to better alternatives on their own?” she said.
Before the evaluation was released, questions and concerns were raised over whether the calorie-reduction pledge was a serious move or was merely a publicity stunt.
“On what basis does the group make this claim?” said Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health and professor of sociology at New York University, on her Food Politics blog in May. “The press release says that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing a study but the results won’t be released until the fall.
“Hence: Public relations.”
After the evaluation was released, Ms. Nestle gave a consistent reaction as to her response to the earlier announcement, questioning whether the reduction should be attributed to the companies’ efforts.
“Is the reduction in calories due to lower sales of packaged foods in general — the secular trend — or to food companies’ taking the pledge seriously,” she said. “I vote for secular trends — fewer sugary soft drinks and sugary cereals.”
In a commentary published in the October 2014 issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Dariush Mozaffarian, now dean of the Friedman School at Tufts University, rejected the pledge as a publicity stunt.
“The pledge appears to have been a stroke of marketing genius, turning their steadily declining calorie sales into a novel opportunity for self-promotion, an easily publicized but deceptive ‘sham’ pledge that merely reflected ongoing trends,” he wrote.
ConscienHealth questioned the announcement of the pledge before there was any data to back it up.
“It just doesn’t seem smart to announce ‘Mission Accomplished’ before the facts are in,” the group said.
A ConscienHealth blog later quoted Diana Thomas, director of the center for quantitative obesity research at Montclair State University, after the evaluation was released acknowledging the positive impact that the pledge could have.
“If we are to be objective, it’s hard to say that this effort is just a ‘marketing ploy’ by food companies,” Ms. Thomas said. “Likewise, these changes were not put in motion by food companies alone. What we’re seeing is likely the result of the intertwined influence of social pressures and the work of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.”
Whatever the motives, whatever cause for the results, the fact of the matter is that the reduction of calories is not the end of the line, and there is still more to be done.“If you were to catch me at my most optimistic, I might say that this is clearly not the end of where we need to be,” said James Marks, senior vice-president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, by telephone in Mary MacVean’s account in the Los Angeles Times. “But we might be at the end of the beginning.”