A recent piece in Nature argued that the government should regulate sugar like it does alcohol and tobacco—an idea that seems incredibly unlikely. But who needs the government when the world’s largest food distributor wants to make changes? Walmart announced this week that it is rolling out a new label in the spring—emblazoned with the phrase "Great For You"— that will highlight healthy foods for customers. At first, the label will only be used on Walmart store brands, but the retail giant is already in talks with suppliers who want to get involved.
"Our customers told us they need help making healthier choices. They’re pressed for time and confused with all the different labeling on packaging. They want to be able to know there’s a system in place they can trust," says Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez.
Walmart’s guidelines for the "Great For You" label are certainly rigorous enough: Only fruit and vegetable products, 100% whole grain foods, milk and yogurt (and other low or non-fat dairy products), lean protein products, fats, oils, nuts, seeds, and "mixed dishes" containing certain amounts of the previously mentioned products qualify. And here’s the kicker: Added sugars can make up no more than 25% of total calories. Sodium and fats are also restricted.
According to a statement from Walmart, all products with the new label meet "nutrition criteria informed by the latest nutrition science and authoritative guidance from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Institute of Medicine (IOM)." Even Marion Nestle, a well-known professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, agrees that the criteria are strict. In fact, 80% of Walmart’s Great Value products don’t make the cut.
Still, Walmart has reformulated some of its products to meet the criteria (the company announced in 2011 that it was removing trans-fats and cutting down sodium and added sugars in many of its products). Lopez says that Walmart is also working with suppliers on reformulating their products. "There is reformulation in the food supply chain all the time. We are saying look, we’re going through the process with our products, we know you guys are going through this with your products as well, let’s work together."
What supplier wouldn’t reformulate their product if they thought they had a shot at gaining a label that could increase sales? Humans are lazy, after all, and a front-of-the-box label proclaiming how healthy a product is might be persuasive for people who don’t read (or don’t understand) regular nutrition labels.
Nestle has her doubts about the system’s efficacy. She writes in a recent blog post: "All of these schemes are ways to avoid putting negative information on package labels. No seller or retailer wants a red traffic light—'don’t buy me’—on its products, especially because research shows that stop signals work. Customers tend not to buy products marked with red traffic lights. The [recent Institute of Medicine] report concluded that negatives ('don’t buy’) worked better than positives ('buy me’) in guiding consumer choice. A more recent study confirms that finding."
Whether Walmart’s scheme works will be the ultimate test—the results of which we might soon see in America’s waistlines.