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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

UNC Study Shows Food and Beverage Companies Exceed Caloric Cut Pledge

Sixteen of the world’s largest food and beverage producing companies pledged to help reduce obesity of American families with children two to 18 years old by pledging to eliminate one trillion calories from the products these companies sold in the marketplace by 2012, with 2007 as the baseline year, and 1.5 trillion by 2015. The first comprehensive study of their efforts is in, and it reveals that both goals have been exceeded dramatically.

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[Dr. Barry Popkin and colleagues found that American families with children bought 101 fewer calories from packaged goods per person per day in 2012 than they did in 2007. A large proportion of the reduction was from grain-based desserts and other sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. Photo by Margaret Nea.]

Two studies completed by researchers from UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health appear in the latest issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The first study looked at the total marketplace change in calories sold from the 16 companies. The second study looked at what this meant in particular for the calories purchased by households with children. The researchers applied a more sophisticated analysis that allowed them to examine the impact of these companies independent of the effects of the Great Recession and demographic changes.

Among the findings was that the 16 participating food and beverage producers, all of which are members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), collectively sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in 2012 than in 2007.

The independent study by the Gillings School researchers was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

How did these reductions translate to consumers on an individual basis?

“Controlling for the recession and other major economic changes, we found American families with children bought 101 fewer calories from packaged goods per person per day in 2012 than they did in 2007,” said Dr. Barry Popkin, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition in the Gillings School, who led the research team. “Much smaller changes occurred in households without children. A large proportion of this reduction was from grain-based desserts and other sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Dr. Popkin’s team 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, track the flow of foods and beverages that are sold, purchased, and consumed by Americans. This allows 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 Dr. Popkin. “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, by analyzing all components of our food and beverage purchasing patterns, help to identify far-reaching solutions that benefit the health of Americans.”

The research team 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.

“We believe that while the HWCF and non-HWCF brands made cuts in calories purchased per day of 66 calories and 23 calories respectively, there was only a tiny reduction of 12 fewer calories from generic products and store brands,” said Dr. Popkin. “Retailers determine the nutritional content of their store brands [generic or private-label] products. We need them to become a much greater part of the solution, as our research shows a rapid increase in U.S. purchase of these store-brand products.”

“What is unique about the food purchase study is that households were followed over time,” noted first author Dr. Shu Wen Ng,  research assistant professor of nutrition at the Gillings School. “Our modeling approach allowed us to isolate the changes in purchases of companies’ products independent of the effects of changing food prices, unemployment, and demographic make-up.”

Future studies conducted by the Gillings School team and funded by RWJF will show how HWCF’s calorie-reduction pledge has affected trends related to packaged foods and beverages based on race, ethnicity, income, and age from 2007 to 2012. The major new upcoming phase of this evaluation also will link food and beverage purchases to dietary intake among children ages 2 to 18 to examine how changes by the food and beverage industry changes have affected the actual dietary intake of U.S. children.

The 16 companies committed to the HWCF calorie-reduction pledge include Bumble Bee Foods LLC, Campbell Soup Company, ConAgra Foods (including Ralston Foods), General Mills Inc., Hillshire Brands (formerly Sara Lee Corporation), Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods Group/Mondelez, Mars Incorporated, McCormick & Company Inc., Nestlé USA, PepsiCo Inc., Post Foods, The Coca-Cola Company, The Hershey Company, The J.M. Smucker Company and Unilever.