The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday December 6th

UNC research tracks shifts in food industry

Six years ago, 16 food manufacturers pledged to cut one trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012, and a total of 1.5 trillion calories by 2015 — and UNC researchers were enlisted to ensure that they met their goal.

Now, three years into the study, the UNC research team is slated to release the results of its evaluation this fall.

The evaluation, dubbed the UNC Food Research Program, will analyze manufacturers such as The Coca-Cola Company, Campbell Soup Company and The Hershey Company by examining the number of calories sold in 2011-12 by these companies’ brands in comparison to 2007-08 data.

In addition to completing that preliminary study, the research program is also looking ahead to the broader food industry.

Barry Popkin, a professor in the nutrition department who is heading the effort, said UNC researchers are evaluating the food supply industry and its effect on Americans’ diets by analyzing nearly 600,000 different manufactured foods.

He said he expects the research, which costs an estimated $1.5 million annually, to last at least another five to six years.

Dozens of studies and papers will stem from the research, including demographic purchasing differences and the recession’s effect on food purchases, Popkin said.

He said one paper will discuss a discovery that 75 percent of foods and beverages in supermarkets have some kind of added sugar.

Tracy Orleans, a senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is funding the evaluation, said the foundation got involved to help fight childhood obesity.

“It’s really the first time the industry has stepped forward to make a commitment like this, and to commit as well to being evaluated by external, non-industry-connected evaluators,” Orleans said.

Popkin said he hopes the program’s research will help reduce demographic purchasing disparities and improve diets among those with lower income and less education.

“Until we understand what they’re buying … we can’t truly begin to understand how to address trying to improve the health of those who are the least healthy in America,” he said.

Shu Wen Ng, co-investigator in the program, said in an email that one discovery that surprised her was the increase in average calories purchased since the recession.

“This is partly due to people eating out less and eating at home more, as well as shifts away from buying brand-name products to store-brand products, which for some food categories are more energy-dense,” she said.

Ng said she is excited about studying how food is changing and who is affected — and the possibility of improving the situation.

Popkin said although the project is complex, he and his team are enjoying the process.

“It’s quite rewarding that we’re going to be able to help America learn about what it’s eating and what it means,” he said.

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