Evaluating the food industry

Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s Marketplace Pledge


The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), whose members include 16 of the nation’s leading consumer packaged goods (CPG) food and beverage manufacturers, voluntarily committed to collectively remove 1 trillion calories from their products by 2012 (against a 2007 baseline), and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. The pledge was promoted to reduce calories commensurate with the HWCF companies’ role in the excess energy intake in the US diet.

In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) awarded the first of four grants to our team to conduct independent evaluations of the HWCF companies’ “marketplace” pledge. This included a layout of the methods in a baseline study and evaluations of the impact of the HWCF Commitment on food sales and purchases.

In addition to supporting the independent evaluation of the HWCF commitment, RWJF convened a group of expert advisers to confidentially review and consult on the design and interpretation of the core evaluation analyses. The Evaluation Advisory Committee consisted of independent scientists and experts in the fields of obesity, nutrition, economics, and population surveillance. Members assisted in the design and review of the overall evaluation strategy, methods, analyses, and results and review annual reports and manuscripts for peer-reviewed publications.

Key findings

  • The 16 HWCF companies collectively met and exceeded both their interim 2012 goal of selling 1 trillion fewer calories, and their overall 2015 goal of selling 1.5 trillion fewer calories from the U.S. marketplace.
  • We found evidence for a significant per capita decline in average daily consumer purchased good (CPG) caloric purchases between 2000 and 2012 among households with children. Based on pre-pledge trends, declines in CPG caloric purchases were already occurring.
  • Post-pledge reductions in calories purchased from HWCF brands were less than expected given pre-pledge trends, and reductions in calories purchased from non-HWCF name brands and private labels were greater than expected after economic, sociodemographic, and secular factors were accounted for.
  • If the 16 HWCF companies had been able to maintain their pre-pledge trajectory, there should have been an additional 42 kcal/capita/day reduction in calories purchased from HWCF products in 2012 among households with children. A lack of change in total CPG calories purchased between 2011 and 2012 calls into question the sustainability of the decline and a need for continued monitoring.


The role of retailers

We have conducted a number of studies related to retailer behavior in the United States. Two major sets of studies are described below. We have also evaluated to what extent retailers in Berkeley, California passed on a sugar-sweetened beverage tax to consumers.

The first set of studies focused on where US household do their food shopping (ie, types of retailers)and the food and nutrients they purchase. In this, we categorized all US retailers into seven mutually exclusive categories:

  • Warehouse Clubs (e.g., Costco, Sam’s);
  • Mass Merchandisers–supercenters (e.g., Walmart, Super-Target);
  • Grocery Chains (e.g., Kroger, Safeway);
  • Non-Chain Grocery;
  • Convenience–Drug–Dollar (e.g., Seven Eleven, CVS, Dollar General);
  • Ethnic–Specialty; and
  • Others (e.g., department stores, book stores).

We studied overall associations of each type of store with nutrient quality; examined overall shopping clusters for all Americans with a greater focus on low-income and minority households; then explored the nutrient profile of US households within each shopping cluster. We found that almost no US households shop in exclusively one type of store. Rather, in the past decade, three distinct food-shopping clusters of store-types where US households do their food shopping emerged: In 2012:

  • 50% of households primarily (but not exclusively) shop at grocery stores;
  • 23% of households primarily shop at mass merchandisers (e.g., Walmart and Target); and
  • 27% of households split their purchases among multiple store types including both large and small retailers.

Since the early 2000s, the distribution across these three clusters has shifted away from primarily grocery stores towards the other two clusters. Read the full article here.

A second set of studies focused on Walmart© — the largest food retailer in the United States,* with over 80% of households shopping there in 2012 and one of the largest recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spending. In 2011, Walmart announced a Healthier Food Initiative with the stated intent of helping consumers make healthier food purchases. We examined the overall nutrient profile of Walmart consumers’ food purchases, the factors associated with shopping at Walmart (with a focus on low income and minority households), and the impact of the Healthier Food Initiative on nutrient profiles of Walmart food purchases. Using data on household packaged food purchases before and after implementation of this initiative, we examined whether Walmart’s efforts improved the nutritional profile of packaged food purchases at Walmart compared to other comparative chain retailers.

Key Findings

  • The nutritional profile of Walmart packaged food purchases improved over time and in 2013 was similar to those from other food retail chains.
  • From 2000 to 2013, we observed major declines in energy, sodium, and total sugar density of packaged foods purchased at Walmart, as well as declines in quantities of sugary beverages, grain-based desserts, snacks, and candy purchased. The trends following implementation of Walmart’s initiative did not exceed what would have been expected, had pre-implementation trends continued, and therefore they cannot be attributed to the initiative.


* Note: These studies were not supported or funded by Walmart or any of its competitors.