Food Industry's Calorie Reduction Pledge: Smart Marketing, but Dumb Nutrition

Last Updated May 19, 2010 3:16 PM EDT

There's no question that the pledge by America's largest packaged food companies, including Kraft (KFT), General Mills (GIS), Kellogg (K), PepsiCo (PEP) and Hershey (HSY), to slash no less than 1.5 trillion calories from their products over the next five years is a terrifically savvy maneuver. It's going to help them head off potential regulation and it casts Big Food as a helpful partner in the fight against obesity.

But don't look for this to make Americans any healthier or even any slimmer. Skepticism is warranted here for two reasons.

The first relates to the widespread myth that calories are some magical determinant of healthfulness. The simple fact is that all calories are not the same. Just because you're eating a Pop-Tart that now has fewer calories doesn't mean that it's better for you or represents a better choice for weight loss than a bowl of oatmeal and fruit. People are often compelled to overeat because they lack essential nutrients.

And food manufacturers are undoubtedly going to achieve this massive calorie reduction by using more zero-calorie artificial sweeteners and various bizarre-sounding fat replacers. Which begs the question -- does the addition of acesulfame potassium and microparticulated protein make a product healthier or good for weight loss? After all, our consumption of diet sodas has increased dramatically since the 80's, but that hasn't exactly helped us fit into our collective skinny jeans.

Reason two that the so-called Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation promise isn't going to achieve any significant public health outcomes is because restaurant companies are much bigger offenders in the calorie overload department than companies like Kraft and Campbell's Soup (CPB), and they are were big no-shows for this announcement. Not a single restaurant company signed on to the effort.

The contribution of restaurant food, especially from fast casual chains, to the obesity problem tends to get overlooked. The Week recently compiled an alarming list of the 7 worst restaurant meals, including Chili's (EAT) Jalapeno Smokehouse Burger, which has 2,130 calories, and Applebee's (DIN) Crispy Orange Chicken Bowl with 1,900 calories. That's a lot of Pop-Tarts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has more horrifying examples in its Xtreme Eating report.

Companies that sell food in supermarkets have been bending over backwards lately to try and make their offerings healthier -- lowering sodium, losing the high fructose corn syrup and getting rid of artificial ingredients. But restaurant companies have been oddly silent.

Since, Americans spend about half of their food dollars at restaurants, any efforts by the food industry to help obesity are going to fall flat unless restaurant chains decide to join in. Image from Applebee's Related: