File picture: Jacky Naegelen

New York - A voluntary effort by the largest food and beverage companies to remove trillions of kilojoules from the products they sell in the US to help combat the nation’s obesity epidemic has far exceeded its five-year goal, according to an independent evaluation released yesterday.

In May 2010, 16 of the US’s biggest food and beverage companies, from Coca-Cola to Kraft Foods, pledged to remove 1 trillion calories (4.2 trillion kilojoules) from the national 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, an analysis by researchers at the University of North Carolina has found.

“Reports like this, and the fact that they exceeded their commitment by fourfold, really shows that you can make progress in giving American families more healthy options,” said Larry Soler, the president of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a non-profit organisation 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 goodwill of the industry and could not replace the role of tighter regulation on how food was manufactured and marketed.

Such voluntary efforts by industry “are not a magic bullet”, said Jeff Levi, the 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 was not clear yet how the companies accomplished the dramatic reduction in energy content, said University of North Carolina public health researcher Barry Popkin, who led the analysis funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest public health charity.

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-kilojoule products, re-engineer existing products to cut their energy content, 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 kilojoues than sugar-only drinks. They were also “shifting advertising to lower-calorie beverages”, he said, as both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo 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.

Other companies that made the calorie-reduction pledge were Bumble Bee Foods, Campbell Soup, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Hillshire Brands, Kellogg, Mars, McCormick, Nestlé USA, Post Foods, Hershey, JM Smucker and Unilever.

They are part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a chief executive-led organisation formed in 2009 that aims to reduce obesity.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.7 percent of US adults are obese. So are 14.9 percent of children, though this 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 these companies sold 54 trillion calories.

To calculate the calories sold, the University of North Carolina researchers combined data on the amount of food and beverages sold (from grocery store scanners and other sources) with nutritional information for the products. – Sharon Begley from Reuters