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Households with kids ate less junk food in 2012 than '07, report says

16 big food companies cut trillions of calories

American families with kids bought 101 fewer calories per person per day in packaged foods in 2012 than they did in 2007, according to an analysis of a pledge by big food companies to reduce calories in the marketplace. It’s an “impressive” accomplishment but not sufficient to reverse childhood obesity, experts say.

The assessments, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, follow on an earlier report on the work of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation -- 16 big food companies that agreed to reduce by 1.5 trillion the total calories they sold by 2015.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post cited the Vitality Foundation. It is the Vitality Institute.

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That mark has been exceeded significantly: The companies -- which together account for about a third of all the calories in the marketplace -- reduced calories sold from 2007 through 2012 by an average of 78 per person, or 6.4 trillion total.

That is an “impressive” accomplishment but won’t reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity, especially among poor people and some minority groups, according to independent evaluations of the project conducted by scientists funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“There has been a cultural shift in this country -- especially households with kids have really started buying fewer calories,” Barry Popkin, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, said Monday by phone. Popkin and Shu Wen Ng, also of the University of North Carolina, wrote the evaluation of what people bought, using Nielsen Homescan data of more than 61,000 households; they and Meghan Slining evaluated what was sold.

“The calories purchased has really gone down. And most of the decline is in the kind of food you and I would call junk food or junk beverages,” Popkin said.

But not all the news is positive, he said. “What we don’t have is an increase in beans, whole grains, produce” -- change that might come if those foods became cheaper relative to packaged products.

“The steepest declines in sales were reported for the least healthy products. The net effect being that as total calories sold declined, there has been a shift towards healthier foods purchased. In other words -- both food quantity and quality is starting to improve,” Derek Yach, executive director of the health research firm the Vitality Institute, said in an email.

The 16 companies “worked diligently to reduce calories in the marketplace by either introducing new lower-calorie products, single-serve packages and/or changing the recipes of existing products,” Lisa Gable, president of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, said in a statement.

Popkin and Ng wrote that the 101 calories per household with children was made up up 66 calories from the 16 companies, 23 from other name-brand products and 12 calories from private-label products, such as supermarket brands.

The 16 food companies -- which include ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Cola-Cola and Unilever -- are selling more lower-calorie versions -- or what’s called “better for you” versions -- of popular products. But that doesn’t mean they’re healthful, several experts said.

“The lower-calorie products are driving the bus,” said Hank Cardello, a Hudson Institute analyst and former food industry executive. His analysis found that 99% of the $485 million in sales growth for the 16 companies came from lower-calorie foods.

These changes come amid some other positive news of progress against obesity in some groups of Americans.  But the overall average reduction of 78 calories a day is less than half of what’s needed for children ages 2 to 19 to reduce obesity rates to those before the epidemic, Popkin and colleagues wrote. Even larger reductions are needed among African American young people and low-income Americans.

Big food companies have a “tremendous influence” on nutrition trends and eating habits, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mounry, C. Tracy Orleans and Dr. James Marks wrote in a commentary published with the evaluations. “Therefore we both congratulate these companies and call upon them and other industry leaders … to go even further.”

Marks, senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said continued vigilance is needed.

“If you were to catch me at my most optimistic, I might say that this is clearly not the end of where we need to be. But we might be at the end of the beginning,” he said Tuesday by telephone.

Researchers plan “to keep watching them” and take a closer look at private-label brands as well as various population groups, Popkin said.

This week’s evaluations follow an earlier evaluation by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation; that one focused on calories sold -- the 6.4-trillion figure. Popkin and his colleagues wanted to look at the other end of the process -- what households bought. When they adjusted for factors such as the recession that began at the end of 2007 and changing preferences for healthful foods, they said the calorie decline was even greater: 206 calories per person per day for households with children.

But they said they found that from 2011 to 2012, there was a plateau, which “raises a major public health concern.” What it means remains unclear, they said.

The companies’ pledge was part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s work to end childhood obesity.

“It’s all part of the culture. She focused on kids and kids eating healthy. She brought a lot of attention to it,” Popkin said. “She did a big announcement with these companies and that put some pressure on them.”

“The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation was met with initial skepticism but has resulted in tangible progress in reducing calories in the marketplace,” Yach said. The independent evaluations “represents a new way of ensuring that private-public partnerships have the impact they often claim.”

Packaged foods account for nearly two-thirds of the calories Americans eat, Popkin, Ng and Slining wrote. Some of the criticism of the companies’ pledge was motivated by the belief that people need to eat more fresh produce, legumes and whole grains, rather than packaged foods.

Food companies “recognize that the challenge of reducing obesity is one that requires everyone to do their part,” the Grocery Manufacturers of America said in a statement. Toward that goal, the trade group said, the industry has introduced more than 20,000 products with fewer calories, less fat and sugar and more whole grains, among other steps. The group also noted that full-calorie soft drinks have been removed from schools.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

@mmacvean on Twitter. Follow me!

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