Big Reality Check on Big Food’s Claims on Reducing Calories

Source: Sugar Stacks
Source: Sugar Stacks

In what is becoming an all too familiar sight, the major food corporations recently teamed up with the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthier America to announce their latest PR attempt to look like they are helping Americans eat healthier. A group calling itself the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, led by the CEO of PepsiCo–the nation’s largest junk food and sugary beverage pusher–claims to have delivered on its promise made in 2010 (a commitment, get it?) to reduce calories “in the marketplace” by 1.5 trillion. They further claim to have exceeded this goal, and all this a full three years ahead of schedule. The quotes by all involved were practically giddy.


The funny thing is, the official evaluation, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is not actually out yet, and won’t be until sometime this fall. Instead of waiting for what could be a negative, and certainly more scientific take, industry instead jumped the gun. The alleged data to back up its claims is contained in a vague document, posted here under the heading of “Preliminary Report,” even though industry is not even conducting the actual analysis. Instead, that effort is being done independently by Barry Popkin, a researcher at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who confirmed with me that his results won’t be available until the fall.


Meantime, what to make of this industry spin? I asked Bruce Bradley, a former food industry executive turned blogger and author. He was skeptical, to put it mildly. Here are his thoughts about industry’s claims of calorie reduction:


First off, measuring something like this at such a high level is recipe for bias. There are just so many ways to manipulate the data to say what you want. Then when you consider who is issuing the report (HWCF) and their self-interest in appearing as responsible, I am very suspicious.


One big question I have about the data is the economic times we live in. Pre-recession habits are reflected by 2007 data. Certainly lots of families have had to cut back their food expenditures with the harder times of 2012. Again, this is certainly convenient for the sake of HCWF’s calculation. One big caveat to this is that while harder times may have required people to cut down their grocery expenditures, it also required them to cut down their “eating out” spending and make more meals at home. I don’t know restaurant trend data as well as grocery data, but I’m guessing that given how this recession has hit lower/middle income households harder than upper middle/upper income households, the impact of restaurant/foodservice consumption trends is somewhat muted, especially since this data is for 2007 and 2012.


Another big question is how Walmart was accounted for in the data. Since about 2001 Walmart refused to release any sales data. They changed that policy in 2012 and again started to share their sales information going back three years (to 2008) [Source: MediaPost Publications Nielsen Adds Walmart Data To Sales Product 03/15/2012]. Since this report goes back to 2007 what I’m imagining HWCF had to do to equalize this number was to remove Walmart from the calculation since no data was available for Walmart from that period. This would be a very convenient “have-to” for HWCF since sales volume continues to shift from more traditional grocery formats to Walmart.


Another trend that could distort this data is the increased consumption of private label foods. Since the economic downturn, private label has grown significantly. Although private label has made inroads into healthier categories, it still packs a bigger punch in traditional, high fat/salt/sugar categories. I’m guessing growth in private label is yet another way that disproportionately took high calorie volume away, hence making the HWCF’s number look better.


Finally, the beverage category is for sure one that is “helping” HWCF’s numbers. Lower/no calorie drinks is a huge trend, but it’s a crime that low/no calorie beverages are considered “healthy.”


Let’s see if the analysis due out this fall paints a more accurate picture.