Food manufacturers, beverage companies, and chain restaurants often get the blame for the so-called obesity crisis in America. CSPI's Michael Jacobson coined the term "heart attack on a plate" to describe some sort of creamy pasta dish served at a chain restaurant. Never subtle, he also calls soda a "slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon."  Jacobson isn't the only one; Michael Pollan's new book is riddled with references to how Big Food (the term he uses to describe big, bad food corporations) is ruining Americans' eating habits (I addressed Pollan's flawed logic here).  New York Times food writer Mark Bittman often vilifies the food industry in his widely read column. Food writer Michele Simon likes to poke fun at the food industry, like when she said McDonalds’ move to put apples in happy meals is just a “publicity stunt” and well known nutrition writer Marion Nestle acted shocked that one soup company was interested in (gasp!) making money off the products they sell.

But yesterday was different.  At an event held in Washington, DC, a coalition of more than 230 retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants and others that make up the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, announced the coalition of companies met the goal (two full years early!) of cutting 1.5 trillion calories from food and drinks available to consumers.  

That's significant work and good news.  The full report can be viewed here.

Yet, people who follow food issues and certainly the general public should understand that this isn’t the first time food companies have worked hard to cut calories and provide consumers with healthy options. For decades, the food industry has been doing just that—providing consumers a lot of choices.  It wasn’t always like this.  Want proof?  Just speak to someone my mother's age (I won't be unkind and divulge her age on a public forum but I will reveal that I’m 41…you do the math).

I have memories of my mother's struggles to find lower calorie items—particularly snack food. Her elation when Tab–the first diet soda–came on the market is still quite clear to me.  I remember her being thrilled when the local grocery store started stocking lettuces other than iceberg, fresh herbs and a wider variety of snacks—like popcorn and lower fat chips and ice cream.  I know my mom ate those low-calorie, frozen convenience meals (like Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers meals) when we were at school and she had a busy schedule of her own—a convenience not available to my grandmother.  

I’ve also seen the market change over the past decade–offering people more lean cuts of meat and a greater variety of fresh produce, canned items, and even the relatively new movement to provide organic, gluten-free, multi-grain, as well as harder-to-find specialty items. The fact that these things are available in most neighborhood grocery stores today wouldn’t seem possible just 30 years ago.

The food industry deserves the credit for bringing new and healthy products to the market but it's also important to remember that food manufacturers—the companies that Jacobson, Pollan and Bittman like to call “Big Food”–has been the greatest ally to Americans hoping to take off the weight. Why? Because they react to market demands. If people demand it, they'll provide it. That's the good thing about a market system. And, as the new report issued yesterday by the HWCF shows, it’s actually good for business.  Among the report’s findings

  • Lower-calorie products drove 82% of sales growth among HWCF members
  • Higher-calorie products are underperforming
  • Lower-calorie products grew four times over traditional products
  • Lower-calorie products accounted for two-thirds of new products that achieved sales of at least $50 million (a mark, according to Cardello, of a successful new product in the market).

The work of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and these individual companies is commendable and another sign of “big food’s” commitment to bringing to the market healthy and lower-calorie foods and most importantly, the foods consumers’ demand