Walmart joins healthy foods movement

If there were still any doubt that the healthy foods movement has reached critical mass, it was dispelled Thursday when Walmart jumped on the bandwagon with promises to improve the nutritional content of food it sells in its superstores.

The retail giant vowed to force its suppliers to reduce the sugar and sodium content of the food it sells and eliminate trans fats from the products on its shelves. The company also pledged to bring down the price of healthy foods so that they are on par with less healthy fare.

Although the announcement came at an event with First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made improving nutrition one of her major goals, Walmart executives said the change was driven by customer demand.

“Our customers tell us they want a variety of food choices and need help feeding their families healthier foods. At Walmart, we are committed to doing both,” Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart, said in a statement. “We support consumer choice so this is not about telling people what they should eat. Our customers understand that products like cookies and ice cream are meant to be an indulgent treat. This effort is aimed at eliminating sodium, sugar and trans fat in products where they are not really needed.”

The company said it would reduce the amount of added sugar in its dairy items, sauces, and fruit drinks by 10 percent by 2015, and the amount of sodium in grains, salad dressing, lunch meats and frozen entrees by 25 percent. The firm said it would remove all remaining trans fats in packaged goods sold at its stores. Notably absent from the list of products, however, was soda, which many public health advocates consider to be a major contributor to obesity, especially among children.

The effort to bring down the price of fresh fruits and vegetables, while harder to quantify and monitor, is expected to save consumers $1 billion a year, Thomas said.

The company also promised to build more stores in low-income areas that lack access to healthy foods. And the firm said it would promote the use of an easy-to-understand label on the front of packaging telling consumers about the nutrition content of the food they buy.

Because Walmart is so big and sells so much food, its policies are believed to drive market trends. If that happens here, the company could entrench early moves by others to improve the nutritional content of packaged foods and make it easier, and less expensive, for families to buy and eat fresh food instead.

Marion Standish, director of The California Endowment’s Community Health Program*, applauded Walmart’s moves.

“This initiative represents a major step forward in improving the health of Americans, particularly low income families that continue to face the greatest challenges when it comes to accessing healthy, affordable food,” Standish said. “I challenge others in the food retail industry to take notice and follow Walmart’s lead. By working together, we can motivate the food industry to improve the nutritional value of their offerings, reduce the price, and increase the awareness of healthy food choices to reduce chronic disease.”

*Note: The California Endowment provided the initial funding for the creation of

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