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Food, beverage companies slash calories in obesity fight

Obesity Rates States
(Reuters) - A voluntary effort by the world's largest food and beverage companies to remove billions of calories from the products they sell in the United States to help combat the nation's obesity epidemic has far exceeded its five-year goal, according to an independent evaluation released on Thursday.

In May 2010, 16 of the nation's 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).

"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, critics said the Partnership relied too heavily on the good will of the industry and could not replace the role of tighter regulation on how food is manufactured and marketed.

Such 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 calorie 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.

It is also not clear whether the reduction can move the needle for 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, Campbell Soup Co, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Hillshire Brands, Kellogg Co, Mars, McCormick & Company, Nestlé USA, 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 (having a body mass index above 30, such as 175 pounds on a 5 foot, 4 inch frame). So are 14.9 percent of children, which is 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 -- cereals, chips, canned soup, juices, sodas, candy and more -- sold that year. In 2012 they sold 54 trillion calories.

To calculate the calories sold, the UNC researchers combined data on foods and beverages sold (from grocery-store scanners and other sources) with nutritional information for the products.

Join the discussion

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chefjohnp January 09 2014 at 8:40 AM

Put your electronic device down and step away from the refrigerator! When I went to high school and college, the amount of fat people could be counted on one hand, maybe two, and why? Because, we didn't sit on our butts all day with cell phones, computers, etc., we went outside, walked(minus the cell phone), played sports, rode our bikes, ran, hiked, etc. The answer isn't in the calories, the answer is in what we do with those calories. The people of today are storing them up for a rainy day. Let me clue those people into something.....it's freck'in pouring out there! Use some of those calories! Take one day and just get physical, no phone, no computer, no electronic games, only your body. Do it now, because you're a long time dead.

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1 reply
willowreed chefjohnp January 09 2014 at 8:55 AM

I agree with you Chefjohn! The complaint about kids is that too many are too fat and you are right. When I was a kid we were outside all the time. And I take issue with the photo they used in the article. We don't know anything about the two women. Menopause can make a woman fat. That is not fair that they use that photo. we don't know anything about those women. Why not put a photo of some fat kids on there, or is that too un correct for this media?

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maeder January 09 2014 at 9:15 AM

That is very nice of them, however, I want my food to have REAL ingredients. I don't want artifical sweetner's. We need NORMAL size food portions. A soda bottle used to be 8 ozs. French fries did not come with every lunch. Hamburger's were not a half of pound. Super size, availability and cost has made us fat.

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Gary January 09 2014 at 9:14 AM

I lost 106 lbs this past year, people keep asking me how I did it. I respond that I ate less. Portion control is the key!!!

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houcasey January 09 2014 at 8:08 AM

The problem isn't the calories in processed foods, it's the amount of processed food people eat.
Even low income people have chosen to take the easy route by eating fast food and processed food rather than cook their own. My last visit to a hamburger fast food place cost almost $8 for a hamburger, fries and drink. I could have easily fed 3 - 4 people with that money and my home cooked meal would have been healthier.
Growing up, my mother cooked virtually all our meals from scratch and I do the same with mine. Thing is, it doesn't take much more effort.
Easy to blame the food companies but they're in business to make money. America has become a country of people who have chosen to accept no responsibility for their own actions, preferring to blame others for their failings.

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2 replies
hagman3926 houcasey January 09 2014 at 8:22 AM

the problem isnt the food it is the people who comsume it evrything in moderation

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Ashley houcasey January 09 2014 at 8:46 AM

I agree with you. We need to stop focusing on dropping the calories in processed foods, that does absolutely nothing...it's still processed food. And by what means are the calories dropping? Another chemical or additive that will actually make a person fatter? Since they want to focus on soda, I will use that as an example. Diet soda is actually worse for a person to consume than regular soda, due to the ingredients. BUT that still doesn't make regular soda healthy in any way. Sure I still enjoy one every so often, but it is not a staple in my diet.

People need to focus on eating real food. It's that simple. When on my own journey to lose weight (after years of surviving on boxes and cans) I found that with eating real food, cutting out processed foods, and exercising I lost weight fast and have kept it off. I don't count calories, I only watch my portions. I encourage people to think for themselves and not just listen to the advertising, because yes, these companies are trying to make money (that's what the goal of having a business is).

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kate January 09 2014 at 9:14 AM

Why do we need "diet" food? Just eat real food instead of food out of a box. The fake low fat, artificial sweetener food isn't satisfying, so you just want more food.

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pinkstrat January 09 2014 at 8:56 AM

gmos make you fat by making your flora toxic creating toxic flora in your gut

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scorpian777 January 09 2014 at 9:24 AM

Everything in moderation no need to diet of cause ya need to exercise!!!

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Mik's $ Toy January 09 2014 at 7:30 AM

and they knew high fructose corn syrup was not just adding flavor and 'sweetness' to their products, but that iw as addictive as well - plus they are not addressing all the preservatives that are in canned and boxed and frozen food items - the key to shopping, start in produce, stay along the outer wall, go to meat department and frozen vegetables - stop with the frozen pizzas and snack foods that go into oven or microwave - ppl need to learn to cook and also portion size - stop with the super size servings and and huge plates full of double and triple helpings

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1 reply
leonettislora Mik's $ Toy January 09 2014 at 7:50 AM

How is HFCS addictive? Your body processes it the same way it does sugar, so it alone does not contribute to obesity. However, the prevalence is the real issue.

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2 replies
rosefirsching leonettislora January 09 2014 at 9:02 AM


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kate leonettislora January 09 2014 at 9:07 AM

For Brookhaven Obesity Clinic in NY:

"The average weight, for those in this program, ranges from 400 to more than 800 pounds. Addicted to food, their struggle is an uphill battle. It is not the same as being addicted to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes where some can stop entirely. With a food addiction you cannot stay away from eating."

It's an addiction.

HFCS is highly, highly processed into a different structure than sugar. It's not the same as sugar. And why don't companies just use sugar?

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bachand5 January 09 2014 at 8:37 AM

Fat does not make you fat, carb overload, sugar and large portions make you fat. It does not matter if they modify products to have lower calories if someone eats a whole box of low calorie cookies or bag of chips they are still consuming to much. Low calorie foods just give people the false idea that they can eat more of it and it will be ok. I would rather eat a small portion of a full fat food and enjoy it then eat a whole box of low fat low calorie fake crap

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Bob January 09 2014 at 8:35 AM

You mean, if I choose to be overweight or if I want to consume hundreds of excess, processed calories, government and big business is going to take that FREEDOM away from me? But wait! There's more! If you look at it from another angle, by reducing the calories, we can choose to consume more servings to make up for what is missing and those businesses will sell even more product! Good for the bottom line!

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2 replies
willowreed Bob January 09 2014 at 8:55 AM

yeah..what you said there.

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.kowalski440mag Bob January 09 2014 at 9:15 AM

Bob, you and chefjohnp are both right...right as rain. I am 54, male and am @ 10 lbs overweight(which isn't bad). I don't eat excessive amounts of fat filled foods and get plenty of exercise which includes running/walking 3 miles/day and gym 3 times a week. I'm a blue-collar guy and not an upper-end person who can afford a personal trainer. If I can stay close to my ideal weight, well, so can anyone else....if they choose. If not then it's a character flaw and not 'society' or 'government' or 'Wall Street.' People have to choose for themselves, if not...then...they only have themselves to blame for their own obesity.

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