Food Makers Agree to Cut 1.5 Trillion Calories

Michelle Obama announces a food industry agreement to remove calories from food; independent observers will make sure they actually do it.

by Marian Burros

May 18, 2010

Fewer calories at the supermarket could mean an end to childhood obesity.

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—What does it mean when First Lady Michelle Obama announces that a group of food and beverage manufacturers are going to take 1.5 trillion calories out of the yearly American food supply by 2015, 1 trillion of them by 2012?


Actually, no one really knows. But we can hope that if those calories are no longer available, it might help children maintain a healthy weight and, consequently, that Mrs. Obama’s pledge to reduce childhood obesity in a generation will have a better chance of coming true.

THE DETAILS: Sixteen food and beverage companies have made the calorie-ridding pledge, in response to a speech Mrs. Obama gave in March to a food industry association. At that event, she urged the industry it to speed up its efforts to produce healthier foods, and to reduce marketing of unhealthy foods to children. And, while they were at it, to increase the nutritional value of the food. Agreeing to cut the calories is an opportunity for the food industry, concerned about local sugar taxes and increasing congressional interest in writing antiobesity legislation, to stave off regulations while getting on board with the first lady’s Let’s Move initiative.

At a news conference Monday, Mrs. Obama introduced the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of 80 retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, and industry trade associations. The calorie-cutting companies, members of the foundation, include some of the country's largest manufacturers, such Pepsi, Coke, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, and Campbell Soup (see the end of this article for the full list), and they have pledged to lower calories from fat and sugar in their products by offering lower-calorie options, changing recipes to reduce fat and sugar, or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serving products.

“This is precisely the kind of private-sector commitment we need,” Mrs. Obama said.

Marian Burros reports on Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campain:
Michelle Obama Unveils Plan to End Childhood Obesity
Michelle Obama Moves, and Is Moved by, Schoolkids
Secret Weapon for Fighting Childhood Obesity: Children
White House Garden Grows; School Lunch Budget Shrinks

The 1.5 trillion figure is based on statistics that show Americans consume 6 trillion more calories a year than they expend. That amounts to about 100 to 165 calories per person, per day. The 16 companies account for 20 to 25 percent of those excess calories. The new coalition has joined forces with The Partnership for a Healthier America, which works with Mrs. Obama, the honorary chair, to advance Let’s Move!

WHAT IT MEANS: Is this more than just a promise? The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation has hired an outside lawyer to gather its results each year and report on them, but that hasn’t assuaged skeptics’ fears that the food industry will do what it has always done in the past: appear to improve the nutritional value of its food while making very few meaningful changes. Hiring an outside lawyer to monitor the foundation members' actions and report the results has not stilled the critics, though, because the lawyer can hardly be called independent when he is being paid by the foundation.

So someone—perhaps the White House, though it won’t say—decided that a truly independent third party should do the policing. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonpartisan philanthropic and research organization that works to improve the nation’s health, will keep the companies accountable, evaluating how the group’s efforts affect the number of calories consumed by children and adolescents. James Marks, MD, a pediatrician and a senior vice-president for the foundation, says it turned down a request from the Healthier Weight group to partner with it, but is willing to evaluate the group's progress “in the role of independent evaluator because of some skepticism” about the industry. He added that “much of the health community would approach statements by the food industry with similar skepticism.”

Dr. Marks says it would be possible, using government health statistics that come out every two years and commercial data that track sales of products like soft drinks and snacks, to find out if the changes made by the industry have any impact. "Our findings will be completely independent of any reporting the companies do themselves. An independent evaluation naturally increases pressure on the company to deliver," he says.

Reasonable skepticism aside, it's a hopeful sign that food makers are willing to sign on to cut their calories. “It’s a big risk for the companies,” Dr. Marks added. “Their willingness to be public in their commitment is a statement of their willingness to be leaders.” But he warned that success isn't just up to the food companies. “If they cannot find people who are willing to buy their products and appreciate them, and give them greater market share, but instead are staying with companies not making improvements,” the experiment will fail.

In other words, if we all really want our kids to be healthier, we have to put our money where their mouths are, and actually buy healthier food when it shows up in the stores.

The following companies have pledged to lower the calories and fat in their products:

Bumble Bee Foods, LLC
Campbell Soup Company
ConAgra Foods
General Mills, Inc.
Kellogg Company
Kraft Foods, Inc.
Mars, Incorporated
McCormick & Company, Inc.
Nestlé USA
PepsiCo, Inc.
Post Foods/Ralston Foods, LLC
Sara Lee Corporation
The Coca-Cola Company
The Hershey Company
The J.M. Smucker Company

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