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Walmart plans healthier foods at lower prices

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Walmart, the largest retailer in the U.S., has pledged to cut the trans fat, salt, and sugar from thousands of its grocery products by 2015 in the U.S.—and to cut prices on produce and other healthy foods.

Unveiling the company’s plans at an event with First Lady Michelle Obama on January 20, 2011, Walmart executives said they would work with suppliers to

  • remove all of the remaining industrial trans fats from its grocery products, including the small amounts that fall beneath the FDA food labeling threshold;
  • cut back on sodium by 25 percent in foods that are often hidden sources of sodium, including bread and baked goods, lunch meats and fresh meats, cheese, condiments, chips, soups, and boxed and frozen meals; and
  • cut back on added sugar by 10 percent in foods that consumers often don’t realize are high in added sugar—such as breakfast cereals and snack bars, pancakes and waffles, flavored milk and yogurt, condiments and sauces, and fruit drinks; it will not, however, change the added sugar content of sugary treats or sugar-sweetened soft drinks.

The changes reportedly will apply to Walmart’s house-branded products, and Walmart executives say they will encourage other product suppliers to follow suit.

In addition to making its grocery foods healthier, Walmart is trying to make healthy foods more affordable. Executives say they will cut prices on fresh fruits and vegetables and “better-for-you” packaged food items, such as whole grain pastas and reduced sodium meals, so that the healthy foods are no pricier than their less-healthful counterparts. And they announced their intention to open stores in “food deserts”—neighborhoods, often urban, that don’t currently have easy access to affordable, fresh healthy foods.

These changes will take time and effort. To cut prices on produce, Walmart will need to increase its local sourcing of fruits and vegetables and wring unnecessary costs out of its supply chain. To achieve its other nutrition goals, Walmart’s suppliers will have to stealthily reformulate their products to cut back on salt and sugar without sacrificing taste.

Given Walmart’s size—its 4,300 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores draw more than 140 million U.S. customers per week—and its clout in the food and grocery industry, the planned changes promise to have a major impact on foods sold at other grocery stores across the country.

“This new initiative has the potential to transform the marketplace and help Americans put healthier foods on their table every day,” said Mrs. Obama, speaking at the Walmart announcement. The First Lady has spearheaded the “Let’s Move!” initiative, which is working to curb U.S. childhood obesity rates, and Let’s Move! staff worked with Walmart on the development of its plan. Reportedly, this is the first time that the First Lady has given this type of support to a single company’s nutrition efforts.

The announcement represents an important victory for public health activists who have been working for more than a decade to eliminate heart-harmful trans fats from the food supply, and who have been intensifying efforts to curb added sodium.

Most Americans get the majority of their daily sodium, on the order of 75 percent, from processed and prepared foods, many of which don’t even taste salty. (1) High sodium diets increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, and it’s been estimated that curbing Americans’ excessive sodium intakes—on average, 3,400 milligrams per day, more than double what’s recommended for most adults—could save billions of healthcare dollars and upwards of 90,000 lives annually. (2, 3)

Still, there are some who think that Walmart could have gone farther with its planned changes. Walmart’s initiative does not address the biggest source of added sugar in Americans’ diets—the billions of gallons of sugar-sweetened soft drinks that Americans consume each year and that contribute mightily to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. (410) (The rationale for not addressing sugary soft drinks, according to Walmart executives: Consumers can already choose sugar-free beverages from Walmart’s shelves.)

Similarly, a 25 percent sodium reduction may sound like a lot, but other food producers have already begun reducing sodium by similar amounts. Walmart could have made a bigger impact by adopting stricter food category-specific sodium thresholds, similar to what has been proposed in New York City.

Walmart executives positioned this as a customer-driven initiative, saying that customers have been asking for healthy foods that are more affordable—and asking for help identifying healthy options. So Walmart also plans to create front-of-package nutrition labels that make it easier for consumers to spot healthy foods. Front-of-package nutrition labels have been a source of consumer confusion, and the focus of government attention, with an independent Institute of Medicine Panel working to propose standards that companies must follow. Walmart said that its labeling would complement, rather than compete with, industry efforts.

“Even though some of us had hoped that Walmart might go a bit farther, this is a very important step in the right direction,” says Dr. Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. “Very importantly, Walmart promises to remove the price difference between healthier and regular versions of the same food, which will be hugely beneficial for those with low incomes, who are often forced to purchase products they know are not good for the well being of their families. We hope that other grocery stores will follow this lead, and go even further in helping Americans have better lives.”

References

1. Brown IJ, Tzoulaki I, Candeias V, Elliott P. Salt intakes around the world: implications for public health. Int J Epidemiol. 2009; 38:791-813.

2. Palar K, Sturm R. Potential societal savings from reduced sodium consumption in the U.S. adult population. Am J Health Promot 2009; 24:49-57.

3. Bibbins-Domingo K, Chertow GM, Coxson PG, et al. Projected effect of dietary salt reductions on future cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med. 2010; 362:590-9.

4. Beverage Digest. Beverage Digest Fact Book 2008: Statistical Yearbook of Non-Alcoholic Beverages. Bedford Hills, New York, 2008.

5. Bleich SN, Wang YC, Wang Y, Gortmaker SL. Increasing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among US adults: 1988-1994 to 1999-2004. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009; 89:372-81.

6. Wang YC, Bleich SN, Gortmaker SL. Increasing caloric contribution from sugar-sweetened beverages and 100% fruit juices among US children and adolescents, 1988-2004. Pediatrics. 2008; 121:e1604-14.

7. Schulze MB, Manson JE, Ludwig DS, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2004; 292:927-934.

8. Malik VS, Schulze MB, Hu FB. Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006; 84:274-288.

9. Malik VS, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages and BMI in children and adolescents: reanalyses of a meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009; 89:438-9; author reply 439-40.

10. Vartanian LR, Schwartz MB, Brownell KD. Effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition and health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Public Health. 2007; 97:667-675.