Walmart’s New Initiative and Our Health: More Harm Than Good?

Since Walmart’s announcement last week that it will “reduce sodium by 25 percent, eliminate industrially added trans fats, and reduce added sugars by ten percent by 2015,” some experts on food policy and health are claiming this is a step in the right direction, an encouraging sign of progress. Still others think the jury’s out and it remains to be seen if the initiative will prove beneficial. From a nutrition perspective, I find both of these claims faulty. If we intend to take the obesity and diabetes epidemics seriously, and if we truly care about the abysmal state of health of the American people, we cannot put our faith in an empty Walmart promise that barely scratches the surface of our country’s food and health crisis.

Walmart is well aware that in order to stay ahead of the curve with effective marketing they’d better jump on the bandwagon of promoting “healthier” food options. And just as we have seen green washing in large corporations, now we are seeing health washing—it abounds these days: The new McDonalds commercial for a healthy oatmeal breakfast, Wendy’s French fries with real sea salt, and now Walmart’s claim that it will cut the amount of sugar and sodium in their processed foods and remove 300 trillion calories in their foods overall. This makes for good press coverage, but the truth is these goals are miniscule in the face of a toxic, processed food supply.

As Anna Lappe rightly points out in her Civil Eats article, this effort is actually irrelevant when considering that many of these foods already contain nearly twice the amount of sodium the CDC recommends we consume in an entire day. As for sugar, the AHA says that women should consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day, and men no more than nine. Meanwhile, one, 12-ounce Coke contains eight teaspoons of added sugar; a 25 percent reduction would still amount to six teaspoons—the upper limit of how much sugar a woman should consume in an entire day.

Clearly these “changes” are intended for PR and marketing advantages. These kinds of so-called improvements to industrial foods are not helpful and have actually been shown to be counterproductive and harmful.

This move brings to mind the Snackwell effect–in which consumers, when presented with low-fat cookies, ate more than they would of normal cookies, thus increasing their overall caloric intake and sabotaging their efforts to lose weight. I worry that the new labels Walmart intends to put on packages of food with reduced amounts of sodium and sugar will have the same effect as customers load up on “healthy” foods that are free of trans-fats and lower in sodium or sugar. Why not eat two cans of soup or drink two sodas?

Expecting Walmart to make processed foods healthier is like asking Phillip Morris to make their cigarettes healthier.  Indeed, blurring the lines between what’s healthy and what’s not only hurts consumers more as it makes the job of finding healthy foods harder and more confusing. This is yet another example of the American Fast Food Syndrome but with a slightly different twist. This time, a corporation is trying to make its processed foods appear healthier and thus appeal to Americans on two fronts: they can eat processed food, participating in what’s considered the normal American diet, while also feeling better about eating these new “healthier” foods.

Walmart claims it will reduce the price of fresh fruits and vegetables as part of its initiative as well and this is really the key to improving the health of Americans. But why can’t the government step in and subsidize fruits and vegetables like they do the corn and soy that go into nearly every processed food item? And why are we relying on a private corporation to police itself? This is truly a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Michelle Obama is well intentioned in bringing attention to our country’s diet-related health problems, but it seems she’d be better off asking her husband to address the deeper, underlying issues at hand here rather than asking a corporation like Walmart to make superficial and mostly meaningless changes.

This article is part of a regular column by nutrition expert Kristin Wartman, in which she examines food, nutrition, and the way the industrial food industry affects our food system and our health.

8 thoughts on “Walmart’s New Initiative and Our Health: More Harm Than Good?

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  4. I am really disturbed that this seems to be the only type of coverage that Civil Eats is doing on Wal-Mart at the moment (I am also referring too http://civileats.com/2011/01/21/why-we-should-question-walmart%E2%80%99s-latest-pr-blitz/). I am no fan of Wal-Mart (and tend to only darken their doorstep when we are traveling and there may be no other options in a small community for me to buy some supplies), but this article seems to be pointedly ignoring the power of marketshare in our society. Wal-Mart has proven time and again (not always for the good, I freely admit) that they can drive the marketplace by the demands of their share. Why isn’t lower prices on fresh produce a good thing? Why isn’t their drive to break into food deserts a good thing? I don’t see why it is antithetical or hypocritical that they are striving to make a profit by serving the under-served (in marketplace terms); they are a corporation, they will always strive to make a profit, but that doesn’t mean that can’t do it in a way that is more conscientious than the way of business of the past.
    Processed foods are part of American Culture. Period. They aren’t going away. There is nothing wrong with demanding that the processed foods out there are more aware of what is healthy and try to approach that norm.
    The health of whole foods will never be overshadowed by processed foods, and Wal-Mart is not a paragon of business virture. But so many Americans for want of resource or education shop at Wal-Mart in order to feed their families. There is nothing wrong, and I think it may even be commendable, that Wal-Mart is beginning to engage a different conversation with these families other than price.

  5. I have the internal debate about when the corporate giants make these small changes if they should be celebrated or still looked down up.

    For me, I couldn’t possibly get myself to praise a company like Wal-Mart. No matter how green or healthy they claim to be, they still treat their employees like crap.

    Treating a human like a human is more important than food with less salt.

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  7. The efforts of Walmart to market the changes of product contents is an issue of giving the consumers a chance to choose among the food products they are going to consume on the daily basis. This is very important to the consumers who live in the city when organic food product supplies are limited. They have no choice but to pick up processed foods which is by far cheaper than organic food products.