There are signs that Americans are paying closer attention to eating healthier and that food producers and restaurants are making it easier to do so.
Progress is coming on both the producer and consumer side of the equation. A number of corporate partnerships are setting concrete goals for making food healthier. The efforts often team public and private entities and go by such names as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and the National Salt Reduction Initiative.
At the same time, the number of calories people are consuming appears to be leveling off.
But before conclusions are drawn about whether the country is really eating healthier, researchers need to measure whether those corporate initiatives are delivering what they promise and identify what is driving the lower calorie consumption. The answers are critical as poor diets contribute to alarming rises in chronic and acute illnesses, and some researchers question whether large food corporations should be trusted to be part of the solution.
“Calories are dropping significantly,” said Meghan Slining, research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Preliminary research indicates that daily per-capita energy intake among U.S. children and adolescents increased considerably from 1989 to 2004, and then fell through 2009-2010, Slining said.
But a number of things could be causing that drop. One could be the efforts by companies to make food healthier. Or it could be that better public awareness of the dangers of unhealthy food and the recent economic slowdown have led people to make different food choices, Slining said.
And the country has a long way to go before its residents could be considered healthy eaters. “We're seeing some positive changes. It's still not close to what it should be,” she said. She noted, for instance, that calories consumed by children in low-income families remained higher in 2009-2010 than in 1989-1991.
Slining is one of the researchers working to determine if the corporate pledges of 16 members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation are having any effect. In a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she and her colleagues are assessing the success of a group of companies that collectively pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015. The participants include Coca-Cola Co., Kraft and Nestle.
The researchers just released a baseline estimate for the number of calories consumed in 2007 in packaged foods and drinks from the 16 companies, coming up with a number of 67.3 trillion calories, which represents about 36% of such calories consumed. That number will be used to calculate whether or not the companies were able to complete their pledge. The baseline report was published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The hope is that the study will spawn similar efforts that will feed the hunger for data on food consumption. That way, when groups such as the National Salt Initiative announce success in reducing salt consumption—as it did last week—there will be tools to analyze such claims. The salt initiative has a number of goals, with companies such as Kraft claiming success in reducing sodium across its portfolio by an average of 10% over three years.
But another group of researchers from Australia reject the partnership model, arguing that public-private efforts are a means to delay or prevent greater regulation of the food industry. In a report published online last week by the Lancet, the authors wrote that “there is little objective evidence that public-private partnerships deliver health benefits and many in the public health field argue that they are just a delaying tactic of the unhealthy commodity industries.”
The authors argue that regulation is the best solution to the problem of companies selling unhealthy foods.
Public health officials from major metropolitan areas that include Seattle, Los Angeles and Boston joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a letter last week asking the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of sugar and corn sweeteners in beverages.
But regulation isn't a realistic option in the U.S., said Bill Dietz, who in June left his post as director of the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Given the split in Congress it's unlikely we're going to get a regulatory answer or strategy on this,” he said.
Dietz also said there are companies that are sincere about their efforts to produce healthier food. But some big obstacles remain in the way of getting companies to do that, and one is that the major ingredients causing health problems—fat, salt and sugar—are what makes food taste good. Companies have to be given an incentive to sell healthier food, Dietz said.
That was the thrust of a report from the not-for-profit Hudson Institute earlier this month, also backed by Robert Wood Johnson. Restaurant chains selling lower calorie foods did better in terms of sales and customer traffic, the report concluded. The authors want the results to spur the chains to focus more on healthier menus.
And Slining said the public-private efforts should not be discounted. They are natural experiments that can help the effort to get healthier foods on tables across the country, even if they are shown to be unsuccessful. “Something is happening, and we can observe if it makes a difference or not,” she said.