Can you Trust the Food Industry? An Insider’’s Tale

September 24, 2014 Derek Yach

When I gave up my post as a World Health Organization executive director to join PepsiCo in 2007, my friends and colleagues thought I had lost my mind. They and others were understandably skeptical that large food and beverage companies could ever become a positive force for improving public health.

But now, there is new evidence that proves the skeptics wrong. An independent academic study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and just published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that big food companies can improve what we eat.  Specifically, it found an effort by 16 major food and beverage companies (including PepsiCo) to make food healthier resulted in the sale of 6.4 trillion fewer calories in 2012, compared to 2007. Do the math and you’ll realize that’s 78 fewer calories per day for every man, woman and child in America — a major achievement for public health.

However, cynics are criticizing the program.  They believe big food companies can’t be trusted and programs like this are shams, motivated by greed and profit. Having been on the inside of big food myself, I can tell you this is far from the truth.

The cooperative effort of these 16 companies is called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF). It is a campaign to change consumer behavior, lead people to make healthy eating choices and improve the collective health of our country.

Early on, as the HWCF was being formed, some companies resisted the use of numeric targets and any reference to “their” products playing a role in the smoldering childhood obesity epidemic. However, eventually consensus was reached that the food industry would have to act in meaningful ways that showed their commitment to impactful change. The target was set to sell 1.5 trillion fewer calories in five years, so the companies went to work changing recipes, introducing new low-calorie foods and reducing portion sizes.

The results were astonishing. The coalition exceeded its goal by more than 400 percent and better yet, the steepest declines in sales were reported for the least healthy products. In other words—both food quantity and quality is starting to improve.

However, this work is far from complete. More than one-third of American adults are classified as obese. In order to accelerate the progress, deeper partnerships between food, beverage, retail and food service companies are needed. Investors need to reward companies for making a commitment to health. Government should incentivize positive change by supporting prevention science that builds better food-based solutions, increasing physical activity in schools and community settings, and aligning agricultural policy with healthy diets. We need to collaborate across sectors.

These first reports of progress by the HWCF offer hope that should encourage us to call for more. We no longer have to doubt that widespread change is possible in the food industry. Even a skeptic has to admit, positive change is underway.

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