Companies Walking the Talk on Improving Nutrition

By Elle Alexander

The recent announcement of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) companies reducing calories sold by 6.4 trillion, surpassing the 1.5 trillion pledge for 2015, is a great example of corporate collaboration to improve the food system.

Having been at PepsiCo during the goal announcement of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a collaboration of over 250 companies to help reduce obesity chaired by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, I was impressed to see 16 food and beverage companies (and competitors) agree upon a calorie-reduction pledge.  This follows work led by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in collaboration with the American Beverage Association to remove regular soft drinks from schools, leading to an 88% decline in calories shipped to schools in the US.  This exemplary partnership for improving nutrition is the product of industry competition resulting in good public health policy.

The independent analysis of the HWCF commitment by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) confirms the success of voluntary corporate actions in improving nutrition.  While calls for stricter government regulations from the public health community continue, the corporate voluntary approach has made measureable impact in reducing calories for sale in the marketplace.

HWCF companies have succeeded in decreasing calories in packaged foods and beverages, complimenting programs encourage the sale and consumption of healthier items. For example, the Vitality HealthyFood benefit offers a discount on healthy food items sold in stores in South Africa.  Offering a discount on healthy foods was associated with an increase in healthy foods purchases and a decrease in unhealthy food purchases.  Building on this success, the HealthyFood benefit is now offered in the United States at Wal-Mart stores.  Companies such as Revolution Foods are working to make healthy foods accessible by providing freshly prepared meals to schools.  On the political front, the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative includes comprehensive strategies to solve childhood obesity within a generation.  And on the local level, New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a limit on sugary drink container size to 16 oz, a policy still under discussion in the courts.  Improving nutrition has been supported by widespread media and NGO voices, shifting consumer views of what and how much to eat.  For example, a promising campaign was recently released by the NGO Action on Sugar, pushing companies to voluntarily reduce sugar in products. Imagine the possibilities for population health if fruits and vegetable were subsidized by governments, promoted by companies and made desirable to consumers!

Margaret Chan, Director General of WHO, has stressed the importance of food companies “walking the talk” by making commitments and sticking to them to prove positive intent to improve nutrition and build trust with the NGO and public health community.  As seen in the HWCF, companies are making pledges and meeting or exceeding them; this transition to transparent commitment making provides more evidence that industry has a positive role to play in addressing population health and reducing obesity.

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