A lesson in how major food and beverage companies influence public perceptions about obesity

In 2009, a group of the world’s largest and most powerful food and beverage companies banded together to make a voluntary pledge of reducing calories in the US food supply. This group of now 16 food and beverage companies, which control about 25% of the US food supply, formed the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.

It sounds like a pretty straightforward setup. A coalition of private companies agree on a voluntary commitment, and rely on independent evaluators to assess if they meet this commitment.

In the case of the HWCF, they pledged to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the US food supply between 2007 and 2012. This sounds like a pretty significant pledge. After all, 1.5 trillion is a pretty big number, right?

The independent evaluation of the pledge, published in 2014, found a total reduction of about 78kcal per person per day for participating HWCF brands. For a little context, this amounts to a little more than half a can of Coca-Cola (total calories: 140).

Okay, we can debate whether 78 calories a day makes a meaningful difference when it comes to obesity prevention. That’s a scientific debate. But let’s put that aside for now. Let’s get into the PR, which is where the story really is.

After the announcement that HWCF companies removed some 6.4 trillion calories from the US market between 2007 and 2012, public health leaders offered their praise. A VP from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the HWCF, said, “The calorie cuts achieved by these companies have the potential to be quite important.”

The First Lady offered her support as well. A Let’s Move press release on the HWCF’s milestone stated, “Leading companies are making real changes…to help reduce obesity, and this a solid step forward.”

Okay, now we have legitimacy. Companies display some commitment to change, which leading public figures support, validating the effort.

But this doesn’t say much about how difficult these changes were for industry in the first place. A 2015 study of Walmart’s healthier food initiative, which the First Lady also had a hand in brokering, demonstrated,

“…the declines seen at Walmart after the initiative’s official implementation did not exceed what would have been expected had pre-implementation trends continued, and therefore they cannot be attributed to the initiative. These results suggest that food retailer–based initiatives that purportedly create a healthier food environment may not suffice to improve the nutritional profile of food purchases. More systemic shifts in consumers’ characteristics and preferences may be needed.”

So, we have the appearance of progress, which receives validation from prominent public health leaders and advocates, which builds trusts (including with skeptics), all while the progress we’re celebrating wasn’t really all that difficult to attain anyway.

Regardless, armed with increased legitimacy, there’s the opportunity to do more. The HWCF exceeded it’s pledge by 400% (again, how difficult was the initial pledge if they exceeded it by 400%). We’re impressed with how far they exceeded expectations. Now, there’s license to go beyond the organization’s original mission.

But what was the overall aim of the organization? It was all about product reformulation and achieving a very specific, concrete pledge related to the food supply.

That’s changed now. The group now focuses a lot on education, particularly with kids in schools! They employ zero staff with any background in public health or nutrition. Yet the organization has developed and deployed an “energy balance” curriculum for schools that the organization claims has reached half of all US pre-K through 5th graders in the US.

Now regardless of the actual number, the intention seems clear.

Last year a New York Times article exposed a concerted strategy by Coca-Cola to fund research to reinforce this “energy-balance” paradigm, and shift attention away from other (and, many would argue, stronger) predictors of obesity, like diet. The Global Energy Balance Network, which Coca-Cola had a heavy hand in starting and promoting, has since disbanded.

But this doesn’t diminish the strong influence the food and beverage industry has on scientific research. And when it does fund research, the outcomes are almost always more favorable to industry, 5 times as much according to this 2013 study. These results now support an “evidence-based” approach supported by industry, including with education programs, like the ones through the HWCF.

There’s a strong affinity to justify policy and programs with the term “evidence-based,” especially in public health. Yet, as I argued in this article, it can be a straw man. Anything can be used as evidence, even biased or industry-funded research, or expert opinion by industry-funded scientists.

Okay, so let’s sum up.

A group of powerful food and beverage companies join together to do something about their vilification in the growing obesity epidemic. They agree to a big sounding goal. They are the only ones who know how easy or difficult it is to attain the goal, so anything impressive-sounding will do. They wildly exceed public expectations. But, in reality, this massive jump beyond expectations was the result of low-balling the initial goal, rather than because of revolutionary changes. We congratulate industry for its impressive-sounding changes, all the while, obesity and chronic disease trends aren’t getting any better.

What do we learn from this story? And, more importantly, do we do anything differently?

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