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Food, beverage companies slash calories in obesity fight

A voluntary effort by the world's largest food and beverage companies to remove billions of calories from the products they sell in the United States to help combat the nation's obesity epidemic has far exceeded its five-year goal, according to an independent evaluation released on Thursday.

In May 2010, 16 of the nation's biggest food and beverage companies, from Coca-Cola to Kraft Foods Group, pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015, compared with a 2007 baseline. In fact, as of 2012 they sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories, found an analysis by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

"Reports like this, and the fact that they exceeded their commitment by four-fold, really shows that you can make progress in giving American families more healthy options," said Larry Soler, president of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a non-profit chaired by first lady Michelle Obama. The group was formed in 2010 to work with the private sector on anti-obesity strategies.

(Read more: Sugar: The food industry's tobacco moment?)

At the time, critics said the Partnership relied too heavily on the good will of the industry and could not replace the role of tighter regulation on how food is manufactured and marketed.

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Such voluntary efforts by industry "are not a magic bullet," said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a non-profit policy group. "Particularly with kids, there is a role for regulation" in reducing demand for unhealthy, high-calorie fare.

It is not clear yet how the companies accomplished the dramatic calorie reduction, said UNC public health researcher Barry Popkin, who led the analysis funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest public health philanthropy. Some of the decline may have come from the recession, as financially-strapped families cut back on junk food.

(Read more: Posts on McDonald's employee site bashes fast food)

When the pledge was announced, companies said they would substitute lower-calorie products, re-engineer existing products to cut their calories, and reduce portion size, such as with the popular 100-calorie packs of cookies and other snacks.

Popkin and his team have found that beverage companies are producing more drinks that have both sugar and artificial sweeteners and, therefore, fewer calories than sugar-only drinks. They are also "shifting advertising to lower-calorie beverages," he said, as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo both did.

(Read more: Fast foodCEO: How govt regulation is driving us abroad)

The biggest reduction in calories sold was to households with young children. "It seems to be parents who are driving the calorie reductions," Popkin said.

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