It might not seem like it during a trip down the snack aisle, but packaged foods are getting lighter -- by trillions of calories, according to a new study from a public health group.
The total calories in products sold by 16 of the nation's largest food and beverage marketers dropped by 6.4 trillion from 2007 to 2012, according to an independent evaluation funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The companies -- which include General Mills, Kraft Foods Group, Nestle, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. -- had pledged to remove 1 trillion calories in the five-year period ending in 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015, using 2007 as a baseline year. The initiative is run through an organization called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, an industry group that was formed in 2009.
The findings of the evaluation, which are scheduled for release on Thursday, mean the companies have exceeded their 2015 pledge by more than 400%, according to RWJF. In 2012, the companies sold a total of 54 trillion calories worth of products.
From a PR standpoint, the results offer a welcome bit of positive public-health news for the packaged-food giants, whose products have been targeted by activists for contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic.
Of course, the dropping calorie count could be partly a reflection general sales declines, rather than proactive health responses from the companies. Sanford C. Bernstein in a recent report noted that volumes have been declining by 0.4% on average for each year since 2010 for large packaged food companies, "which lead investors to worry about out the top line growth potential of companies." And in an ominous sign for big-spending processed food makers, the report noted that the declines could be structural, not cyclical, as consumers shift to fresher, healthier products. "Unfortunately, at present, many packaged food companies are not well-exposed to fast-growing categories," the report stated.
"It's extremely encouraging to hear that these leading companies appear to have substantially exceeded their calorie-reduction pledge," James Marks, senior VP and director of the health group at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which focuses on health issues, said in a statement. "They must sustain that reduction, as they've pledged to do, and other food companies should follow their lead to give Americans the lower-calorie foods and beverages they want."
The 16 companies accounted for 36% of all packaged-food and beverage calories sold in the U.S. as of 2007, from Campbell's soup to Kellogg's Froot Loops. The 6.4 trillion-calorie decline equals a drop of 78 calories per person in the U.S. per day, according to the evaluation, which represents the first effort to track the total number of calories marketed by large companies.
"If they really have cut 70 to 80 calories per person, per day that could have a meaningful public health effect," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is a frequent critic of big food companies. But she was careful not to give the companies too much credit. "How much of this is actually due to a proactive changes that the food industry has made as opposed to just marketplace changes?" she said. "Are Americans just drinking less soda and switching away from some junk foods to better alternatives on their own?"
Industry leaders believe they are playing a role through product reformulations and newer packaging emphasizing portion control. The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation cited a range of products, including Yoplait Greek 100-Calorie yogurt from General Mills; Ballpark lean beef franks from Hillshire Brands; Keebler fudge-dipped pretzels that come in 100-calorie "right bites" portions by Kellogg Co.; and low and zero-calorie sodas such as Coke Zero and Pepsi Next.