Cutting Calories: Good for Health, Good for Business

Sep 16, 2014, 12:58 PM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

Family shopping together in grocery store.

Four years ago, 16 companies, acting together as part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), announced an ambitious pledge—to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace by 2015. They wanted to help reduce obesity in America, especially childhood obesity. Research published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine confirms that the companies far exceeded their pledge, and are making a difference that’s helping families buy fewer calories.

Collectively, these companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in 2012 than they did in 2007, which we announced in early 2014. What’s new in these studies tells us that, during that same pledge period, families with children bought fewer calories from packaged foods and beverages—and the biggest cuts were from major sources of excess calories in kids’ diets, such as sweets, snacks, and soft drinks.

Why is this pledge so important, and what’s the next step for industry leaders who want to help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic? RWJF senior vice president Jim Marks and lead study author Barry Popkin, PhD, of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, share their views.

RWJF: What’s the most important finding in these studies?

Barry Popkin: People are buying fewer calories from HWCF brands, and many of those calorie cuts came from foods and drinks that are key sources of excess calories in kids’ diets—products that are highest in fats and added sugars, like sweets, snacks and sugary drinks. These are meaningful changes.

But we must remember that this is only one part of broader national efforts needed to help all families and children have healthier diets. To make progress on this very ambitious goal, we must collaborate beyond the HWCF pledge to encourage industry leaders to shift to product lines and marketing practices that make it easier for kids to consume more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and other nutritious foods and drinks.

RWJF: The 6.4 trillion calorie cut translates into a reduction of 78 calories per person per day. Is this enough to make an impact?

Jim Marks: The calorie cuts achieved by these companies have the potential to be quite important. Together, the 16 companies account for about a third of all the calories from packaged foods and beverages sold in America, so they can have a big influence on the market.

But it’s true that this measurement of calories per person per day is a limited picture. The 78 calorie number does not take into account other sources of calories, the purchased food that is wasted, the impact of physical activity, or how healthy those calories are. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

That’s why we must continue to do all we can to make sure that the foods and beverages available to children and families are healthy and affordable. The HWCF companies need to further their commitments, and other companies need to step up to the plate as well. We also need to ensure that these changes are benefiting everyone, especially those at higher risk for obesity.

RWJF: The study on households with children notes that the decline in the number of calories families purchased from HWCF brands was less than expected. What does that mean?

Barry Popkin: We looked at shifts in what families were buying both before and after the HWCF companies made their commitment. We found that before these 16 companies started their pledge, families were already buying fewer calories from packaged goods sold by HWCF companies. If those trends had continued at exactly the same pace, we would have expected the calories purchased from HWCF companies to go down more than they did from 2007 to 2012, during HWCF’s pledge period.

Overall, we found that American families with children bought 101 fewer calories from packaged goods per person per day during the pledge period. We also found that HWCF brands contributed to the decline more than other brands—families bought 66 fewer calories from HWCF brands—and that the largest calorie cuts came from sweets and snacks, carbonated soft drinks, and cereals and other grain products. These are extremely encouraging accomplishments and they had a real impact on families.

RWJF: To evaluate HWCF’s pledge, the research team developed a way to track the flow of food and beverage products across America. Are there other ways to leverage this system?

Barry Popkin: These results are part of a pioneering evaluation that, for the first time, tracks foods and beverages from factory to fork. It tells us what companies are selling and what Americans are buying and eating. It also opens new opportunities to work with industry leaders to find far-reaching solutions that benefit both the health of Americans and the companies’ bottom lines.

We are continuing to monitor trends that show what people are buying. Future studies supported by RWJF will go beyond examining the HWCF pledge to assess how changes in the marketplace influence children’s diets and their risk for obesity. Other studies also supported by RWJF will examine how these changes have affected the foods and beverages purchased by those at greatest risk for obesity, including minority and lower-income families.

RWJF: Why did RWJF evaluate this pledge and what’s RWJF’s goal going forward?

Jim Marks: I was in the room with these companies when they announced their original commitment and volunteered for it to be evaluated. I know these leaders recognize the severity of the childhood obesity epidemic and are committed to addressing it. That’s why we agreed to fund the evaluation, and I’m so pleased with what we’ve learned so far. This is a remarkable accomplishment. It shows that industry can be part of the solution for reversing the nation’s obesity epidemic.

At RWJF we recognize that our vision—to build a Culture of Health that offers everyone opportunities to make healthy choices, no matter where we live or how well off we are—cannot be realized without cooperation from the business community. So we’ll move forward by encouraging HWCF and other industry leaders to do even more to ensure that healthy changes are a priority. This includes companies that shape our nation’s food supply—food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants, grocery stores, and other retailers. But also health care providers, childcare facilities, hotels, sports organizations, major media and entertainment companies, and other businesses that influence how we live, learn, work and play.

We’d encourage anyone who’s interested in learning more about how the food and beverage industry can help address childhood obesity to join the live webcast here for a special conversation between RWJF CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey and Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and chair of HWCF. The discussion will take place Wednesday, September 24, and will be moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour.

RWJF: How are people responding to these types of changes? Does "healthy" sell?

Jim Marks: Yes. Making the shift to lower-calorie products is not just the right thing for customers, it also makes solid business sense because consumers are demanding healthier choices. In fact, for some food and beverage companies, it’s the “better for you” lower-calorie products that are driving sales and profits.

A report by the Hudson Institute found that 99 percent of the almost $1/2 billion in sales growth for leading consumer packaged goods came from lower-calorie foods from 2007 to 2012. There also has been a 96 percent increase in the availability of lower-calorie products. Food and beverage manufacturers are responding to shifting consumer demand for lower-calorie, healthier products, which is an encouraging trend. This is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping all kids and families make the healthy choice the easy, affordable, everyday choice.