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 the University of North Carolina and was part of a yearslong effort by the nonprofit organization to reduce childhood obesity in the United States.
The companies involved, from Bumble Bee Foods and Omaha-based ConAgra Foods to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, account for 36 percent of the calories in all packaged foods and beverages sold.
Dr. James 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.
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 2009 when the companies began planning their program and the recession had put a dent in such sales.
The analysis also does not account for meals eaten in restaurants. Nor does it distinguish between a reduction in calories that is attributable to company efforts and those that consumers 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 Center 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.
Sales of the processed foods that line the long rows in the center of grocery stores have been stagnant, and beverage companies have been scrambling as consumers abandon sugary carbonated drinks.
“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.”