By Sharon Begley
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The world's largest food and beverage companies have far exceeded a five-year goal set in 2010 to fight obesity by removing trillions of calories from products sold in the United States, according to an independent evaluation released on Thursday.
In May 2010, 16 of the biggest food and beverage companies, from Coca-Cola Co to Kraft Foods Group, pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015, compared with a 2007 baseline. In fact, as of 2012 they sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories, found an analysis by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
The companies say they accomplished this through changes ranging from reducing the sugar in chocolate-milk powder to introducing more ice-cream products with built-in portion control.
"Reports like this, and the fact that they exceeded their commitment by four-fold, really shows that you can make progress in giving American families more healthy options," said Larry Soler, president of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a non-profit chaired by first lady Michelle Obama. The group was formed in 2010 to work with the private sector on anti-obesity strategies.
At the time the Partnership was launched, critics said it relied too heavily on industry good will and called instead for stricter regulation on food production and marketing.
Even with the companies' success so far in reducing the calories they sell, some experts still warn that voluntary efforts by industry "are not a magic bullet," said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a non-profit policy group. "Particularly with kids, there is a role for regulation" in reducing demand for unhealthy, high-calorie fare.
It is not clear yet how the companies accomplished the dramatic reduction, said UNC public health researcher Barry Popkin, who led the analysis funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest public health philanthropy. Some of the decline may have come from the recession, as financially-strapped families cut back on junk food.
When the pledge was announced, companies said they would substitute lower-calorie products, re-engineer existing products to cut their calories, and reduce portion size, such as with the popular 100-calorie packs of cookies and other snacks.
Popkin and his team have found that beverage companies are producing more drinks that have both sugar and artificial sweeteners and, therefore, fewer calories than sugar-only drinks. They are also "shifting advertising to lower-calorie beverages," he said, as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo both did.
The biggest reduction in calories sold was to households with young children. "It seems to be parents who are driving the calorie reductions," Popkin said.
Several participating companies made lower-calorie versions of their popular foods. Last winter, General Mills introduced 80-calorie Fiber One chocolate cereal (other cereals in the Fiber One line have 170 to 220 calories, though the "serving" size is also larger). It has rolled out a 90-calorie Fiber One brownie, 100-calorie Yoplait Greek yogurt (versus 140 in the original) and 90-calorie Yoplait light (versus 170).
The introductions have been hits with consumers. The brownies "generated more than $100 million in retail sales in their first year," said General Mills spokeswoman Kris Patton, while Yoplait Greek 100 "reached $150 million, making it the single largest new-product launch for Yoplait in 20 years."
Nestle USA has reduced the sugar content of its Nesquik chocolate powder more than 25 percent since 2000 and intends to cut it another 15 to 20 percent this year. Its Stouffer's brand of meals has less fat, and it now counts more than 30 ice cream products from its Dreyer's, Haagen-Dazs and other lines which come in single-serve cups or bars or are otherwise portion-controlled: when people dig ice cream out of a 48-ounce tub or even a pint, they consume an average of at least two servings.
Coca-Cola is "offering low- and no-calorie options for nearly all of our brands," said Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, and those drinks "now represent nearly one-third of our beverage volume in North America." Smaller sizes such as 7.5-ounce "mini cans" of Coke, Sprite and other sodas have helped consumers imbibe.
However, the reduction in calories sold may not yet move the needle for the more than two-thirds of Americans who are overweight or obese. The 6.4 trillion fewer calories works out to 78 fewer calories per person per day, if spread equally across the 2012 U.S. population. By comparison, Americans consume an average of 300 more calories a day now than in 1985 and 600 more than in 1970, according to a 2012 report by Trust for America's Health.
Other companies that made the calorie-reduction pledge are Bumble Bee Foods, ConAgra Foods, Hillshire Brands, Kellogg Co, Mars, McCormick & Company, Post Foods, the Hershey Company, J.M. Smucker and Unilever.
They are part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a chief-executive-led organization formed in 2009 that aims to reduce obesity. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese, with a body mass index above 30, such as 175 pounds on a 5 foot, 4 inch frame. So are 14.9 percent of children, down from 15.2 percent in 2003.
The 16 companies sold 60.4 trillion calories in 2007, which was 36 percent of total calories in packaged foods and beverages sold that year including cereals, chips, canned soup, juices, sodas, candy and more. In 2012 they sold 54 trillion calories.
To calculate calories sold, the UNC researchers combined data from grocery-store scanners and other sources on foods and beverages sold with nutritional information for the products.
(Reporting by Sharon Begley; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Gunna Dickson and David Gregorio)