Walmart’s Healthy Moves For the Consumer or the Company?

Walmart, announced a new healthy foods-based initiative last week alongside First Lady Obama in Washington. The five-year plan calls for reducing levels of sugar and salt, as well as eliminating trans fats in packaged foods.

By 2015, Walmart wishes to reduce sodium levels by at least 25% and added sugars by 10%, helping to reduce some of the nutritional downsides of hundreds of packaged foods. The company intends to work directly with food suppliers to make these changes happen.

How satisfactorily these companies will comply with Walmart’s initiative still remains to be seen. The plan also begs the question of whether healthifying packaged foods should really be the main priority right now. As Marion Nestle puts it, “I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.”

Walmart plans to drive down the prices of healthier processed foods, and also intends to place stores in areas considered food deserts in order to help low-income individuals. Thirty to forty smaller-format stores are being proposed for creation in urban areas by the beginning of next year. The world’s largest retail chain also intends to reduce the prices of fruits and veggies by creating its own produce supply chain, a goal that I find much more beneficial than decreasing prices on processed foods. (I don’t believe “healthy” and “processed” should hang out in the same sentence, again why I don’t think it should be the top priority.) Company officials say they intend to save consumers a total of $1 billion globally on fruits and veggies. However, there are negatives to consider even with this part of the initiative, such as how it will affect local and small-time farmers.

Walmart is also in the works of creating a self-designed nutritional seal of approval to be placed on what the company identifies as healthier products by the end of this year. It aims to have 25% of its product-line meet the created nutritional standards, which will include a focus on fat, sugar, salt, and whole grains.

But once again, there is criticism of this endeavor, with many believing the company-created nutritional seal is simply a ploy to avoid stricter, (more truthful), potential FDA-regulated seals.

Walmart’s healthy initiative proves to be a contentious issue. It has called for praise and criticism from all angles. Is the company really looking out for the health of its consumers? Or is it simply trying to raise its own status and drive up its shares? By how much will the changes actually help consumers make healthier choices? It’s hard for anyone to fully be against an initiative that has at least some aim towards promoting healthier eating. But many claim Walmart isn’t doing enough and that the changes are insignificant, intended only to improve the face of the company.

What are your thoughts on Walmart’s new healthy initiative?

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  • Reply
    The Candid RD
    January 28, 2011 at 9:06 am

    I think this was a great post, Grace. When I first heard about this initiative I thought, “wow, good for Walmart!” but then I put my “business cap” on and really considered the fact that they are getting so much publicity over this, and I’m sure they’re loving it. While I can’t complain that they are making such important strides in nutrition (I especially love that they are moving into food deserts) I still think the women above said it right, “just because it’s a healthier processed food doesn’t make it the right choice!”. Same idea with organic foods. Organic candy bars aren’t healthy!! So overall, I think Walmart is doing something that needs to be done, but in the long run it will only make them more of a power house.

  • Reply
    Tracey @ I'm Not Superhuman
    January 28, 2011 at 9:45 am

    As with everything Walmart does, this is for money. That’s just how big companies are run. But I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. If pushing health initiatives brings in money for Walmart but also helps the consumer in the process, then why not? It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. And maybe if customers vote with their wallets (buying Walmart’s fresh produce over the packaged foods) then it will take even bigger steps, putting a priority on fresh foods over packaged.

  • Reply
    January 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    …before we begin I just wanted to say I am totally smitten with your blog and postings….so….

    When you bring together Michelle Obama and Walmart in one post it is like divining on World Peace, most interesting and yes provocative. I really don’t want to deal with Walmart in this post except to say two quick things.

    First, in 2008 Walmart stopped using milk that contained rBST in their store brand. Because of the buying power of Walmart this created a major shift in how the dairy industry produces milk. This is good.

    Second, in Feb of 2010 “….In a series of blind taste tests performed by The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer, he found, to his surprise, that much of Walmart’s new locally-grown fruits and vegetables taste just as good as (and sometimes better than) what you’ll find at higher end stores like Whole Foods, but at a far better price. Kummer bought a bunch of fresh eggs, cheese, spinach, pears, and other locally-produced food from both Walmart and Whole Foods, cooked up a meal, and invited a bunch of friends over for a blind taste test. Here’s what they discovered: As I had been in my own kitchen, the tasters were surprised when the results were unblinded at the end of the meal and they learned that in a number of instances they had adamantly preferred Walmart produce. And they weren’t entirely happy…..” Quality food for the working class, this too is a good thing.

    Now on to the First Lady and public health policy. Yes, it would be most cynical to try and connect the dots between Mrs. Obama profession as a lawyer and the trial lawyers of America role in creating public policy in my beloved Democratic party. And yes, couple that with the complications that are created when a person–Mrs. Obama- with zero professional experience with a specific issue is put in a position to shape public policy it becomes most problematic indeed. Both of these issues need to be addressed but better left for another time. That said, I did find an interesting post yesterday on specifically this topic of defining health standards and with perceptions associated with it. A good read me think:

    If I Could Bring Two People Together…

    Michelle Obama needs to meet Gary Taubes. Here we go:

    FORT JACKSON, S.C. – First Lady Michelle Obama said Thursday that the military’s push to turn recruits into health-conscious warriors could be a model for making people across the U.S. more focused on fitness and nutrition.
    Obama, who has made battling childhood obesity one of her signature causes as first lady, visited the Army’s largest training post at Fort Jackson outside Columbia to see what the Army has done, from more rigorous training drills to fat-free milk in its mess halls.

    Fat-free milk? Ahhh!

    Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It”, would love to chat with Ms. Obama about how the medical community backed the wrong pony forty years ago when they decided dietary fat was the health problem vexing America. The message the public took away was ‘You won’t get fat if you don’t eat fat’, and we can look around and see how well that worked out.

    And lo these many years later, the medical establishment finds itself up a tree from which they can’t gracefully climb down – rather than risk their credibility, they continue to promote dietary fat as a problem, as illustrated by the skim milk at the Army base.

    But Ms. Obama needn’t listen to Gary Taubes, a vastly talented science writer who has been obsessing about this topic for more than a decade. For someone with impressive establishment credentials she could turn to Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department at the HArvard School of Public Health. Here is his comment from last summer on the revised 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, due out on Jan 31:

    The report has made positive changes but has some shortcomings (see attachment). Positive changes: stronger recommendation to reduce sugary beverages; greater emphasis on sodium reduction; and much less emphasis on the percentage of energy from total fat, which is correctly described as not related to weight gain, obesity, or any other major health outcome.

    Shortcomings: (1) Total fat is still recommended to be less than 35% of calories, and there is no basis for setting an upper limit on total fat.

    If dietary fat is not the problem, fat-free milk is not the answer.

    As to what the problem is, let’s turn to Dr. Willett again – this is from the LA Times last December:

    But a growing number of top nutritional scientists blame excessive carbohydrates — not fat — for America’s ills. They say cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

    “Fat is not the problem,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.”
    If a mere science writer isn’t convincing (and that may be the case for people who focus on credentials rather than evidence), take it from the Harvard guy.

    And let me add this – Michelle Obama is not part of the medical establishment. She ought to be much more invested in popularizing the correct message than in covering the (ever-widening) rear areas of the doctors who have been backpedaling from their own bad advice for forty years.

    So where will she go from here with her “Let’s Move” program? She can deliver the same old blah blah that has gotten us to our current grim predicament, or she could listen to some of the well-credentialed skeptics, host some informal hearings, commence beating the drums against carbs, let the insurgents in the medical community push their research under her aegis, and be the woman who saved America and her husband’s health care plan (the estimated cost of the obesity epidemic exceeds $100 billion per year).

    I am resigned to more blah blah, but here’s hoping!

    TO RAISE THE STAKES: I kid you not, if she actually starts seriously trumpeting a “No sugar or refined carbs” message I will vote for her husband in 2012. Unless he steps aside and asks the party to nominate her, and then she gets my vote directly. Currently she is exhorting us to make better choices (swap fruits and veggies for candy – no kidding!) and follow the USDA food pyramid. That pyramid is opaque, but it does recommend grains, half of which should be whole grains. As if – that is a mixed message that won’t get through.
    By way of contrast, here is the Harvard food pyramid. It’s still a mixed message, but refined grains are clearly set aside at the top in the “Use Sparingly” category; refined grains are down in the foundation.

    That is more clear and straddles the same problem faced by the USDA but not individuals – what a doctor might recommend for his patients may be quite different from what the Surgeon General would recommend, because the United States (and certainly the world) need wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes to find enough calories.

    Now, a bit of hope for the planet – there is a possibility that fructose (found in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, as well as sweet fruits) is the trigger for insulin resistance and the descent into obesity and diabetes. If so (IF!), that could help explain why some Asian countries that have diets high in rice but low in sugar don’t have an obesity problem.

    Further implications – the current cohort of overweight (and especially, obese) Americans are past the trigger point and would have to give up the list of carbs noted by Dr. Willett. However, healthy folks here and in the rest of the world would be free to eat wheat, rice and potatoes to their hearts content as long as they stayed away from sugar. That is good news for feeding the world, and perhaps for the political palatability of the low-carb solution to the obesity crisis. (Yes, the gluten protein in wheat is problematic for a lot of people for different reasons, but enough, already.)

  • Reply
    Angela (the diet book junkie)
    January 30, 2011 at 3:05 am

    great post, Grace, i hadn’t read about this yet. um, first off, not to sound like a cynic, but when it comes to big business, the all-mighty dollar is always the bottom line. so no… i don’t suspect Walmart actually cares about our general health or well being….

    this really reminds me how much i hate packaged foods and the marketing that goes along with it. whenever something is labelled “less sugar” or “less salt” consumers always equate that with *health* food, or that it’s *okay* to eat. wouldn’t it be great if we were more interested in fresh foods that don’t have labels at all?

  • Reply
    January 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    To be honest- any kind of healthy initiative is a good step..whether or not it is absolutely healthy. A huge factor in being healthy is having the money to buy healthy items. And although many people claim produce is cheap- you need more than veggies and fruits to keep the average person going. In north philadephia- it has cost me $5.99 to buy a 6 pack, yes 6 pack of 100 calorie packs. But all the junk food was sitting on nice displays at value bargins. To be honest- nobody can really afford to feed their familes with 6 pack snack boxes at 6 dollars. If prices were lower and more healthy options were made avaliable- I think there would be more success. The concern should not be whether or not Walmart is making it healthy enough, rather I applaud them for taking a step in the right direction where many familes find Walmart products affordable. As well as making a concious decision to eliminate chemicals and yucky stuff from food and drink items. Plus- we are all allowed guilty pleasures. Not everything neeeeds to be health concious in every food choice they make. There is no fun in that. There still and always will be a market for those bad desserts that people crave.

  • Reply
    February 1, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Wal-Mart is only about profit. Every company that supplies Wal-Mart with products is told exactly what they must do in order to keep Wal-Mart’s business. Wal-Mart employees are abused–low wages, forced overtime, insititutionally-encouraged denunciation of workers by other workers. This is all about bottom line profit for the company, nothing else. Wal-Mart was kept out of my town about a dozen years ago and I am so grateful to the people who fought it–I moved here five years ago and if Wal-Mart were here, I wouldn’t be here. I really hate the monster Wal-Mart and everything it stands for.

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