Smaller Size? No Thanks to This Pledge -

The first report card for the food industry's high-profile vow to cut a trillion calories from what it sells each year is coming in the next few months. But some nutrition and obesity experts already are giving the effort a grade of incomplete.

In 2010, 16 food and drink makers made the joint pledge to shave one trillion calories from the products they sell in U.S. stores and vending machines by 2012, and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015, both compared with 2007 levels. The firms were all members of a newly formed group called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation—the culmination of several years of talks with each other and with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on how the industry could help shrink American waistlines.

Later this year, two reports are expected to shed light on how the food makers have done at meeting the 2012 goal. The firms' foundation commissioned Georgetown Economic Services, a part of the Kelley Drye law firm, to evaluate its members' progress. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Princeton, N.J.-based body focusing on health issues, has tapped researchers at the University of North Carolina Food Research Program to independently monitor the bottom-line goal and to dive deeper into the data—seeing whether, for instance, the food makers should get credit for a cut in Americans' consumption, or whether Americans were making healthier eating choices across the board, not just in their purchases from firms involved in the pledge.

Supporters of the pledge say it is an important step, and that already the North Carolina researchers' progress in designing a system to count total calories sold marks a major advance in tracking eating habits. "This is the largest and first industry initiative of this type in the country, perhaps in the world," said C. Tracy Orleans, senior scientist for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But skeptics point out that the pledge's big central number represents just 2% of all calories produced by these companies. And it looks a lot smaller on a per-person, per-day basis: just 14 calories, enough to lose just over a pound if permanently taken off the average adult's diet and far short of the number of excess calories in the average American's diet in the era of rising obesity rates, variously estimated at between 100 and 220 calories per day.

"Making minor adjustments to a fundamentally unhealthful food supply can't reasonably be expected to change an epidemic as massive as obesity today," said David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

Using thermodynamics principles and estimated weight gain for Americans between 1978 and 2005, Kevin Hall, a biological modeler at the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimated that the average American would need to shave off 220 calories per day to return to the average 1978 American's weight—a hefty goal.

The food makers' pledge is tied to more-modest targets. Dr. Orleans estimated that the calorie cuts—combined with similar ones from nonparticipating firms—could meet the goals of Healthy People 2020, a federal health effort that includes reducing child-obesity rates to 14.5% by 2020 from 16.1% in 2005-2008. "It's a start," she said.

Backers of the program say its mere existence is a sign of progress, with firms that usually are competitors coming together to make a pledge they will need each other to meet. The firms, which include ConAgra Foods, CAG -0.73% Campbell Soup Co. CPB -0.43% and PepsiCo Inc., PEP -0.51% have ceded control in other ways: to the evaluators, for example, who are using sales data from firms such as Nielsen ScanTrack, rather than the food makers' own numbers, to determine if they have met the pledge.

Representatives of participating firms referred inquiries to the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation's president, Lisa Gable, who said the firms put aside their differences in a "back-and-forth process."

In addition, University of North Carolina researchers are building a database of all food consumed in the U.S. They have created a system to classify 600,000 bar codes for food products. The aim is to tag each one with its maker and nutritional information, then tie those in with sales data.

The North Carolina group's database may be the most enduring result of the pledge, as the food industry isn't easy to corral. There are, for example, nearly 15,000 bar codes for savory snacks. "It's kind of a mind-boggling set of numbers," said Barry Popkin, the program's principal investigator.

While Prof. Popkin and his team will use the database to evaluate whether the foundation's members have met their pledge, they will also go deeper, seeking to correct for the economic climate and trends among other food makers. "We're looking at implications for public welfare," he said. "As good economists, we want to go beyond a number and see what it means."

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