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.