Food industry leaders find ways to help solve nation’s obesity epidemic

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Food industry leaders find ways to help solve nation’s obesity epidemic


UNC-led study shows companies pledging to help reduce obesity have cut trillions of calories from U.S. market


(Chapel Hill, N.C.—Sept. 17, 2014) – Sixteen major food and beverage companies collectively sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than they did in 2007, according to a study published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The companies collectively pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012, and 1.5 trillion by 2015. An independent evaluation led by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) found that, thus far, the companies have exceeded their 2015 pledge by more than 400 percent.


The study shows that the largest calorie cuts came from sweets and snacks; cereals, granolas and other grain products; fats, oils and dressings; and carbonated soft drinks. The companies participating in the pledge, who are members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), sold 60.4 trillion calories in 2007, the year defined as the baseline measurement for the pledge. In 2012, they sold 54 trillion calories. This 6.4 trillion calorie decline translates into a reduction of 78 calories per person in the United States per day.


The UNC team, led by Barry Popkin, W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, made the analysis possible by building an unprecedented, thorough picture of the U.S. food system. They compiled data from many public and commercial sources that, for the first time, tracked the flow of foods and beverages that are sold, purchased, and consumed by Americans. This allowed the researchers to identify how different categories of foods and beverages contribute to American’s calorie intake.


“We’re now able to track how many calories families are buying, the source of those calories and how both are changing over time,” said Popkin, who led the study. “This new source of big data on food production and purchasing opens unprecedented opportunities to identify key factors affecting consumers’ food and beverage purchases and identify far-reaching solutions that benefit the health of Americans.”


The study determined which individual products were included as part of the HWCF pledge and tracked sales of those products over time. To calculate the number of calories purchased by families with children, researchers attributed individual products to the HWCF companies; food and beverage companies that were not part of the HWCF; or private label, store brand, or generic products that retailers control; and tracked purchases of those products over time. All data used were publicly or commercially available.


Popkin’s team also evaluated the impact of HWCF’s pledge to sell fewer calories on the number of calories purchased by families with children ages 2 to 18. The study found that American families with children bought 101 fewer calories from packaged goods per person per day in 2012 than they did in 2007. The largest calorie cuts came from sweets and snacks, grain products, and carbonated soft drinks, and HWCF companies were responsible for more of the decline in caloric purchases than companies not participating in HWCF.


“Much smaller changes occurred in households without children,” said Popkin. “A large proportion of this reduction was from grain-based desserts and other sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.”


For the study on families with children, researchers tracked national purchases of snacks, cereals, breads, drinks, and other packaged goods from 2000 to 2007 (before the HWCF pledge) and 2008 to 2012 (during the HWCF pledge). Researchers found that families already were starting to buy fewer calories from packaged goods before the HWCF companies’ calorie-reduction pledge began and, based on those trends, expected a bigger drop in the number of calories families bought from HWCF brands during their actual pledge period.


Future studies conducted by the UNC team will show how HWCF’s calorie-reduction pledge has affected trends related to packaged foods based on race, ethnicity, income, and age. Upcoming phases of this evaluation also will link food purchases to dietary intake among children ages 2 to 18 to examine how changes by the food industry may affect kids’ diets.


Popkin noted that HWCF’s pledge should be seen as a critical first step that inspires HWCF and other industry leaders, including retailers that control private-label or store brand products, to do more. “Ultimately we need to help kids have healthier diets and that goes beyond reformulating packaged foods. Leading food companies must shift their product lines and their marketing practices to encourage and make it easier for kids to consume more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and other nutritious foods and drinks.”


The 16 companies committed to the HWCF calorie-reduction pledge include:


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



Gillings School of Public Health contact: David Pesci, (919) 962-2600,

Communications and Public Affairs contact: Thania Benios, (919) 962-8596,