May 17 2010

White House says 1.5 trillion calories to be cut from food supply?

I’m in California but fortunately was up early enough to participate in an unexpected White House conference call.  This was a preview of the press conference held this afternoon to announce food company pledges to reduce the calories in their products by 1.5 trillion by 2015.  As the press release explains, the 16 food company members of the  Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)

are pledging to take actions aimed at reducing 1.5 trillion product calories by the end of 2015. As an interim step to this goal, HWCF will seek to reduce calories by 1 trillion in 2012.

The energy gap?  That’s the 1.5 trillion excess calories that Americans consume each year on average.  This number assumes that the American population consumes an excess of 100 calories a day (the kids’ gap is less).  This number comes from some unexplained manipulation of 100 calories x 365 days per year x 300 million Americans.

How will food companies do this?

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goals by growing and introducing lower-calorie options; changing product recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products; or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products. These changes will help Americans reduce their calorie intake, improve their overall nutrition and close the energy gap.

How will we know they will actually do this?

To assess the impact of the pledge, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) will support a rigorous, independent evaluation of how the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s efforts to reduce calories in the marketplace affect calories consumed by children and adolescents. RWJF will publicly report its findings.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

On the other hand, the RWJF evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it.  If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evidence for the need for regulation.

As I explained to Jane Black of the Washington Post, the White House efforts to tackle childhood obesity have been consistent and relentless.  What the White House is doing is holding food companies to the fire for making kids fat. That’s awkward for the companies.  They don’t see it as good for business.  Hence the agreement to change.

What the White House has not been able to get are similar pledges about marketing to kids, but that – and front-of-package labeling – are clearly the next targets.

So let’s give Michelle Obama a big hand for taking this on.  I will be watching for the evaluation with great interest although I hate the idea that we have to wait until 2015 to see the results.

*Added comment: see Michele Simon’s considerably less optimistic post on this.  As she puts it, “who needs policy when you’ve got promises?”

Update May 18: FoodSafetyNews covered the event.  The Atlantic’s political editor is skeptical and notes the absence of a

Calorie Measuring Authority, and the science of counting calories is not as exact as one might think. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which helped to put together today’s event, spent $1 million in the first quarter of 2010 on lobbying, much of it for the maintenance of corn subsidies.

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  • http://budurl.com/ynfr Megan Zuniga

    Props to the First Lady. This is quite an undertaking. Good luck and hope it’s not all for publicity.

  • Anthro

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Has the industry given any examples of planned changes? Smaller individual servings would be a welcome trend, although the underlying problem that has been created by marketers is that every day and every meal is “snack time”. When I was growing up (and still somewhat when MY children were growing up), eating between meals was NOT allowed. Treats were still occasional and “fast food” was a sandwich. No, I am not a hundred and twelve!

    Thanks, as ever, to you (and Michelle Simon) for addressing these issues and keeping us abreast of industry goings-on.

  • http://buildingordinary.blogspot.com graceonine

    Looks like heathwash to me. If Big Food and Beverage really meant to do something about childhood obesity, they’d start reducing fat and sugar right now, in their existing products. Waiting five years makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

    And they’d build a marketing campaign designed to help families make truly healthy choices about the foods they eat, and especially the foods they feed their children. No more “natural;” no more “contains real fruit,” no more “healthy” when it’s packed full of fat, sugar, and a host of unpronounceable ingredients. Cut the hype. Sell real, whole foods.

  • Carla

    Hmmmmm… all I can think is that the food giants will turn with even greater vigor to the Third World.

  • Cathy Richards

    Just how will they reduce the calories? Portion size, less fat, less sugar? Less healthy fats like fewer nuts?

    Remember the 90′s and the low fat craze that resulted in high sugar products and no satiety so frequent snacking??

    I don’t trust the food companies to get this right. Taste and appeal and cheap ingredients will always be their goal. Or more accurately, shareholders’ financial interests will always be their goal.

    Marion, you’ve pointed out many times that companies of all sorts, including food companies, are ultimately and legally beholden to their shareholders, and it is impossible for food companies to meet this legal requirement unless they sell more food than we are supposed to eat.

    Period. This is another self-regulation confabulation obfuscation trick.

  • http://foodtrainers.blogspot.com Lauren Slayton

    When you mentioned changing serving sizes, my skepticism kicked in. Is one method of cutting calories simply making the serving size on the same product smaller? I hope not. And what will they add in to lower calories? Health isn’t just about calories, I hate to think that’s the only variable at play here.

  • http://www.aisleofconfusion.com Anneke Davis

    Why don’t we remove subsidies of corn? Isn’t that a much easier way to reduce the number of Calories in the food supply? We could subsidize organic

  • http://www.aisleofconfusion.com Anneke Davis

    Please ignore my previous comment, accidently hit submit —

    Anyway, this doesn’t make any sense.

    Doesn’t reducing the number of Calories in the food supply start at the farm?

    How about not subsidizing the over production of corn and dairy?

  • Jill

    They’ll just substitute the sugars with artificial sweeteners – which have health implications, too…

  • Mike

    This will likely be nothing more than an manipulation of statistics. Of course they will spend millions on the ad campaign to tell the public how “healty” their food is now that they “cut” calories.

  • Amanda

    I just hope they don’t replace these calories with low-fat, artificial sweeteners…

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  • http://kihope.com kristin

    to second Jill’s comment, “less calories” does not in any way mean “healthier.”

  • Honesty

    I wonder about the substitutions that might be made, replacing current sweeteners with more chemical additives would not be something I would want to see…. But reducing serving sizes is not the answer. It may be helpful for those who are unaware of what a serving should look like, and seems to help those who have limited self control (temporarily – once they get used to it, they just eat two!!). Single servings, however, in no way help the environment. The additional packaging is generally substantial, and often results in less product fitting in one tractor-trailer, therefore actually increasing transportation and cost. If the end-goal is to help humanity improve our health as a whole, we need to look at the whole picture and not continue to cater to the corporations that encouraged these destructive patterns to begin with. Five years to make a twinkie 2/3 smaller?? Really?!? It simply gives them time to retool the factories, redesign the packaging, and hire some marketing firm to exploit the notion that they are reformulating to benefit our health to create the illusion they care about anything other than profit. Sad reality.

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  • Laura

    It will be very interesting to see if, in 20 years or so, this reduction has any impact on American waistlines. My guess is that the food companies are going to do something similar to what happened in the “low fat” movement, which reduced fat, and thus calories, in foods and replaced them with carbohydrates. We all saw how beneficial that was for weight and obesity! I think we really need to get off of the obsession with calories for losing weight in this country, and start looking at the nutritional content of foods and how they impact our bodies.

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