Taken at face value, a news release this week seemed to convey fantastic news for anyone who cares about the national obesity epidemic.

According to an “independent evaluation” funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 16 of the nation’s leading food and beverage companies collectively sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories nationwide in 2012, versus 2007.

Together the 16 companies involved produce about 36 percent of all calories from all packaged foods and beverages, items such as cereals, snacks, canned soups and bottled beverages, sold in the United States.

The companies, collaborating as part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), had previously pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. Based on that promise, the companies more than quadrupled their pledge.

Here are the numbers, according to the HWCF: The participating companies sold 60.4 trillion calories in 2007, the baseline year. In 2012, they sold 54 trillion calories, a 6.4 trillion calorie decline. That translates to 78 fewer calories per person per day.

“It’s extremely encouraging to hear that these leading companies appear to have substantially exceeded their calorie-reduction pledge,” said James S. Marks, MD, senior vice president and director of the Health Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “They must sustain that reduction, as they’ve pledged to do, and other food companies should follow their lead to give Americans the lower-calorie foods and beverages they want.”

Hard to argue that consuming fewer calories isn’t a good thing, given the extent of overweight and obesity that affects a majority of adults. But should we really be showering praise on the food companies, whose primary contribution to the healthfulness of Americans for the last three decades has been relentless R&D to create more processed products that increase both people’s grocery bills, as well as their waistlines?

The problem with all the hosannas over a 78 calorie-a-day reduction is not the what, but the how. How, exactly, did the nation’s food processors quadruple their proclamation to sell fewer calories?

Not by simply selling fewer units of high-calorie (high-margin) snack foods, that’s for sure. Nor by re-directing their advertising to emphasize nutrition over convenience in terms of meal preparation.

They did it by selling us lots and lots of non-nutritive “foods.”

Dietary discount

According to a major 2010 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 percent of the population now consumes no- or low-calorie beverages daily, with more women than men consuming diet drinks (defined as calorie-free and low-calorie versions of sodas, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and carbonated water). That’s important, because women control approximately 70 percent of grocery purchasing in the nation’s grocery stores.

More importantly, people were merely switching their choice of beverages.

“The percentage of females and males who consumed diet drinks increased between 1999 and 2010 and was mirrored by a decrease in consumption of added sugar calories in regular soda over a similar time period,” the CDC report stated. “These results suggest that sugar drinks may have been replaced with diet drinks during that time.”

A pretty strong “suggestion,” I’d say, and therein lies the problem with food companies crowing about how they’re controlling obesity — as if a reduction in calories-per-person is the result of noble sacrifice on their part.

Had the companies announced that Americans were buying and thus consuming 6.4 trillion fewer calories of fast-food, processed products and snacks, all those high-priced “treats” we tell ourselves are just an occasional indulgence — and one that we deserve, thanks to other (alleged) food-related denials we pretend to embrace — I’d be more upbeat about this mega-caloric reduction.

That’s not the case, however.

In 2010, at the beginning of the HWCF initiative, the companies noted that to meet the pledge, they likely would develop new lower-calorie options, change existing products so that they contained fewer calories, and focus on so-called BFY — “better for you” — foods.

Of course, BFY foods are a hot item now, with all major food processors falling over themselves to tout their healthier product portfolios, which while supposedly trimming America’s waistlines, will unquestionably fatten their bottom lines.

But what exactly are BFY foods? As one might suspect, they’re the other reason food companies could so easily take those trillions of calories out of the food chain. According to research from the Hudson Institute, BFY foods are products perceived to be healthier, such as no- and low-fat yogurts and — surprise! — no- and low-calorie beverages, such as flavored waters and diet sodas.

And there’s your answer to how all so many of those 6.4 trillion calories got lost so easily. We’re drinking plenty of bottled, flavored water and diet drinks, none of which are remotely healthy or “better for you.”

And guess what? Hudson’s study showed that between 2007 and 2011, BFY foods and beverages also drove companies’ financial performance, resulting in increased sales, higher profits, stronger stocks and better PR.

Would all those food giants, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Unilever, Nestle USA and Kellogg Company, to name a few, have flipped their marketing mix so aggressively had the benefits been solely confined to caloric reductions?

You tell me.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.