Walmart is already known for its low prices. Now, as part of a collaboration with first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, Walmart has promised to make its food healthier and to make fresh, healthy foods more affordable.
To begin with, Walmart has identified processed products put out by their house brand that can potentially be reformulated to be healthier. Some specific goals: reduce the sodium in deli meats 25 percent, and lessen added sugars in fruits drinks and dairy items 10 percent by the year 2015.
“If the reformulations are adopted by the entire grocery industry, adults in the U.S. will consume approximately 47 million fewer pounds of sodium each year,” said Andrea Thomas, a senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart.
This is a big step forward for the largest grocery chain in America — a calculation by a University of North Carolina Greensboro economics professor estimated that for every Walmart that opened per 100,000 residents, the obesity rate increased by 2.3 percentage points.
The general idea: Walmart is just so big and receives so much traffic, the implications of these changes will result in more Americans buying fresh fruits and vegetables. The store will use its weight to shift prices down and encourage their customers to start eating healthy diets.
A debate room hosted by New York Times asks, “Can Walmart make us healthier?” Several panelists have weighed in, with some interesting takes on what Walmart’s move means for the general public. Just because foods are cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean people will buy them — and there is a great risk that people will buy, and eat, more food if it is affordable and labeled “low-fat.” Katie Bauer with the Minnesota Obesity Prevention Training Program, explains:
“That said, consumer habits are hard to change. In a study conducted by my colleagues at the University of Minnesota, large reductions in the price of healthy snacks did not necessarily lead people to substitute a more nutritious snack for a less healthy one. Often, they just purchased more snacks — resulting in more calories consumed and more money spent — something Walmart has likely considered.”
The move does call into play the taut power lines strung between food processors, distributors and consumers. As Kelly D. Brownell at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity points out,
“Walmart reducing the sugar in its soft drinks sends a powerful message to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo: Do the same or be seen as obstructing the effort to improve health and lower health care costs. It will become more difficult for companies to pump out highly processed products loaded with sugar, fat, salt and artificial ingredients.”
Tom Laskaway, a food policy blogger, asks the important question: Will Walmart’s new healthy food policies make a meaningful difference in the fight against obesity? Changing the ingredients of processed foods will potentially have a positive influence on diets across the U.S., but it does little to change to existing food culture of the country that relies on cheap, quick foods with many artificial ingredients. Just because your soda will have less sugar on the nutrition label doesn’t mean it will contain fewer artificial flavorings and preservatives. Eating pretzels with less sodium won’t add fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet — even if they are cheaper.
What do you think about how Walmart’s move will affect the health of U.S. diets? Share you opinions in the comments section below.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
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