Walmart's Big, Healthy Move Bypasses Organics

The world's largest retailer is pledging to improve your healthy food choices (yay), but their initiative leaves out the healthiest food you can buy (boo).

January 20, 2011

First lady Michelle Obama praised Walmart's healthy food initiative as "a great victory" for healthier eating.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Thursday morning, the world's largest retailer announced that it's using its corporate clout to trim the waistlines and boost the heart health of the American public. At a press conference in Washington, Walmart executives pledged to cut the sodium content of processed foods by 25 percent, remove all trans fats and hydrogenated oils from packaged goods, and cut added sugars by 10 percent by the year 2015. By requiring that food makers follow these guidelines in order to sell their wares in its stores, Walmart's healthy food initiative is imposing new standards on the food industry. Healthier reformulations of packaged foods has been predicted as a key food trend in 2011.


"I'm thrilled about Walmart's new nutrition charter," first lady Michelle Obama, who spoke at the event, said of the new guidelines. "I believe this charter is a huge victory for folks all across this country, but most of all, it's a victory for our children." Walmart described their healthy food initiative as building on the success of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move campaign; last spring, the first lady directly challenged food makers to make and market healthier food.

THE DETAILS: Walmart's new plan is a five-pronged approach to not only make food healthier, but also make healthier food more affordable. Invoking the company's "save money, live better" slogan, Leslie Dock, executive vice president for corporate affairs, said, "Living better means finding foods that will help families live better lives and find those foods at prices they can afford."

The five parts of Walmart's healthy food initiative include:

• Cutting out the sugar, fat, and salt. Walmart is asking its suppliers to cut 25 percent of the sodium from 45 categories of foods, ranging from frozen waffles and TV dinners to breads, canned soups, condiments, and even cottage cheese. They're asking suppliers to cut 10 percent of the sugar from those same categories of foods as well as fruit juices and sodas, and they're pledging to remove any remaining trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils from processed goods.

• Lowering the price of healthier foods. The company is also responding to customer complaints that healthier foods are always more expensive by lowering the prices on fresh fruits and vegetables in its stores, estimating that the move will save its 140 million weekly customers $1 billion a year. To do this, the company plans to build more direct relationships with farmers and eliminate unnecessary costs in its supply chain, said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president for sustainability. Walmart also plans to reduce, and in some cases even eliminate, the price premium on "better for you" foods, such as whole wheat pasta or low-sodium soups, that currently cost more than their less-healthy counterparts.

• Creating a front-of-package labeling system. Jumping on a recent food-industry trend, Walmart wants to make its own healthy-food nutrition labeling system. Aware of the controversies surrounding existing systems like Smart Choices (which garnered a great deal of criticism for appearing on junk foods like Froot Loops and Fudgsicles), the company seems to be exercising some caution here. The labeling system will appear on only a small number of food items, which haven't yet been identified.

• Moving into food deserts and increasing funding for nutrition education. The last two elements of Walmart's plan involve putting some form of its stores into inner-city food deserts—places lacking access to affordable, healthy food—and providing more funding for nutrition education programs. The company provided little detail on the latter, but regarding the former, Thomas said that increasing availability of healthy food in food deserts will drive costs down for everyone. "The reality is that as more people start eating healthier, healthier eating becomes more affordable to all," she said.

WHAT IT MEANS: There's no disputing the fact that, as the world's largest retailer shifts, so do the winds of change. "Because it is the biggest player in retail food sales, anything it does reverberates through the industry and other grocery chains will have to follow suit," says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Paulette Goddard Professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat (North Point Press, 2006). Walmart estimates that its sodium reduction alone will cut 47 million pounds of sodium out of American diets; that's equivalent to the sodium intake of every resident of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Such improvements benefit everyone, especially now that the American Heart Association just halved its recommendations for daily sodium intake, reducing the previously recommended 2,300 milligrams per day to 1,500 for healthy adults.

Be your own Walmart! You can implement the healthy changes that Walmart has announced, and you don't have to wait until 2015. Here's how:

• Cut down on the salt in your diet at when eating at restaurants and when cooking at home.
• Break free of sugar addiction and watch out for hidden sugar.
• Learn how to save money at the supermarket and be aware of the tricks used to make you spend more at the grocery store.
• Join a CSA program and shop at a local farmer's market.
• Donate to a local food bank.

But we have to ask, do these measures go far enough? "Making better-for-you junk foods doesn't necessarily make them good for you," Nestle points out. Still, says Peggy Neu, president of the Monday Campaigns, a health initiative of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, "It’s a huge step forward for Walmart to make these changes, even if they don’t go as far as some would like. It’s easy for health advocates to call for change, but a lot harder when there’s real business on the line." Diane Salvatore, editor-in-chief of Prevention magazine, stated, "Walmart's new program is nothing short of revolutionary, and shows extraordinary leadership on what is arguably the most pressing health issue in America today: how to make eating more healthfully easier and more affordable."

Nestle says she's more encouraged by Walmart's efforts to lower prices on fresh fruits and vegetables. "The indexed price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40 percent since 1980, whereas the indexed price of sodas has gone down by nearly as much," she says. "Walmart's attempt to reduce this discrepancy could be a really important step forward."

Absent from the announcement, however, was any language devoted to organic foods. Walmart offers a variety of organic goods, but there was no mention of whether those would fall under the category of "better for you" foods for which Walmart will be lowering prices (the company didn't respond to our requests for comment on organics by press time). Yet, according to the President's Cancer Panel report released last July, organics are key to a truly healthy diet for everyone, not just those who are willing to pay a premium. "If you're talking about healthy eating, which of the two is healthier—conventional whole wheat pasta or organic whole wheat pasta? " says Mark Smallwood, executive director at The Rodale Institute. "Lower the price on the one that is truly the healthiest," he adds. After all, pesticides used to grow that wheat, and all the other healthy produce Walmart will be lowering prices on, have been linked to ADHD, autism, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and a variety of other ills.

There's plenty to like in the Walmart healthy food initiative. But if we want this first step to be followed by more positive moves, the responsibility lies with us. As first lady Obama pointed out in her remarks, it was parents and consumers who drove Walmart to make these nutrition and price changes, and, Nestle adds, "consumers need to pressure Walmart to include organics in these initiatives." So continue to Demand Organic, whether you shop at Walmart or your corner deli.