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Cutting the calories

Companies have been under intense pressure by consumers who are shunning high-calorie, high-fat foods in search of healthier alternatives.

Published: January 26, 2014 3:22:52 am

How big a difference does cutting 78 calories out of an American’s daily diet make? It may depend on who’s counting.
That is the average amount a day that a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said was the result of a five-year reduction of calories (totaling 6.4 trillion) in sales of food and beverages by 16 major companies.

The tally was assessed through a foundation grant to University of North Carolina, and was part of a years-long effort by the non-profit organisation to reduce childhood obesity in the US.

The companies involved, as varied as Bumble Bee Foods and Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, account for 36 per cent of the calories in all packaged foods and beverages sold. Dr James S Marks, senior vice president with responsibility for the foundation’s health group, said he was encouraged by the progress made beyond the companies’ original pledge to drop caloric contents in their products by 1 trillion calories by 2010. “Now we hope that others see the success these companies have had and make the same commitment.”

Food policy experts were less impressed. Companies have been under intense pressure by consumers who are shunning high-calorie, high-fat foods in search of healthier alternatives.

Nutritionists noted that the study might paint a rosier picture of calorie reduction because its starting point was 2007, when grocery store sales were strong, rather than in 2009 when the companies began planning their programme and the recession had put a dent in such sales.
The analysis also does not account for meals that Americans eat in restaurants, where they could be consuming more calories. Nor does it distinguish between a reduction in calories that is attributable to company efforts and those that consumers have made on their own.
“It’s great to see companies selling fewer calories and reformulating their products to reduce fat and sugar, but it’s hard to know how much is due to the proactive efforts of the industry rather than changes in Americans’ eating habits,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest. “It’s not as if Coke and Pepsi are encouraging people to drink less soda — in fact, Coke and Pepsi are lobbying against state and local policies aimed at reducing consumption of soda.” Nonetheless, Wootan said a reduction of 78 calories a day was significant, whoever is responsible. “The whole obesity epidemic can be explained by an extra 100 to 150 calories a day,” she said.

Sales of processed foods that typically line the long rows in the centre of grocery stores have been stagnant, and beverage companies have been scrambling as consumers abandon sugary carbonated drinks for diet varieties.

“I see an evolution in the way consumers are looking at foods and beverages they purchase,” said Chavanne Hanson, a dietitian and nutritionist who serves as “wellness champion” at Nestlé USA, one of the 16 companies. “That challenges us, which is great for us and great for society because of how important it is to address the issue of calorie balance and the concerns we have from a public health standpoint about obesity and weight.”

To that end and toward their goal, companies have shrunk package sizes, eliminated oils, reduced sugar and salt and introduced new products. Campbell’s, for example, introduced a number of “light” products, like Campbell’s Homestyle Light Italian Wedding Soup and diet V8 V-Fusion Plus Energy drinks with 10 calories in an 8-ounce serving. Jimmy Dean, a division of Hillshire Brands, began selling sausage crumbles made from turkey. “Companies like these with a higher percentage of sales coming from ‘better for you’ products show strong growth, higher profits and better corporate reputations,” Marks said. “That connection between offering healthier products and doing better in the marketplace is a message all of the food industry needs to heed.”

Nestlé also reduced the sugar in Nesquik by 25 per cent; used seasonings and flavourings to help it reduce the oil in some of the sauces used in its Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s frozen food products; and began packaging its Häagen-Dazs and other ice creams in single-serve cups. “These things help consumers be mindful of how much they are consuming,” Hanson said.

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