Good Nutrition from Wal-Mart?

Since Wal-Mart’s announcement on Thursday that it will “reduce sodium by 25 percent, eliminate industrially added trans fats, and reduce added sugars by ten percent by 2015,” some experts on food policy and health are claiming this is a step in the right direction, an encouraging sign of progress. Still others think the jury’s out and it remains to be seen if the initiative will prove beneficial. From a nutrition perspective, I find both of these claims faulty. If we intend to take the obesity and diabetes epidemics seriously, and if we truly care about the abysmal state of health of the American people, we cannot put our faith in an empty Wal-Mart promise that barely scratches the surface of our country’s food and health crisis. Wal-Mart is well aware that in order to stay ahead of the curve with effective marketing they’d better jump on the bandwagon of promoting “healthier” food options. And just as we have seen green washing in large corporations, now we are seeing health washing — it abounds these days: The new McDonald's commercial for a healthy oatmeal breakfast, Wendy’s French fries with real sea salt, and now Wal-Mart’s claim that it will cut the amount of sugar and sodium in their processed foods and remove 300 trillion calories in their foods overall. This makes for good press coverage, but the truth is these goals are miniscule in the face of a toxic processed food supply.

These token changes are actually irrelevant when considering that many of these foods already contain nearly twice the amount of sodium the CDC recommends we consume in an entire day. As for sugar, the AHA says that women should consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day, and men no more than nine. Meanwhile, one, 12-ounce Coke contains 8 teaspoons of added sugar; a 25 percent reduction would still amount to six teaspoons — the upper limit of how much sugar a woman should consume in an entire day.

Clearly the “changes” are intended for PR and marketing advantages only. These kinds of so-called improvements to industrial foods are not helpful and have actually been shown to be counterproductive and harmful.

Remember the Snackwell effect? When presented with low-fat cookies, consumers ate more than they would of normal cookies, thus increasing their overall caloric intake and sabotaging their efforts to lose weight. I worry that the new labels Wal-Mart intends to put on packages of food with reduced amounts of sodium and sugar will have the same effect as customers load up on “healthy” foods that are free of trans-fats and lower in sodium or sugar. Why not eat two cans of soup? Why not drink two sodas?

Blurring the lines between what’s healthy and what’s not only hurts consumers more as it makes the job of finding healthy foods harder and more confusing. This muddying of the waters is precisely the goal of these corporations. If it were clear to the American people what they were actually being sold, I imagine there’d be a lot less buyers. Putting their hard-earned money towards food and drink that’s ultimately harming them seems strange indeed. This is yet another example of the American Fast Food Syndrome at its best, but with a slightly different twist. This time, the corporation at hand is trying to make its processed foods appear healthier and thus appeal to Americans on two fronts: they can eat processed food, participating in what’s considered the normal American diet, while also feeling better about eating these new “healthier” foods.

Expecting Wal-Mart to make processed foods healthier is like asking Phillip Morris to make their cigarettes healthier. Healthy compared to what?

Wal-Mart claims it will reduce the price of fresh fruits and vegetables as part of its initiative as well and this is really the key to improving the health of Americans. But why can’t the government step in and subsidize fruits and vegetables like they do the corn, soy, and wheat that go into nearly every processed food item? Why are we relying on a private corporation to police itself? This is truly a case of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Michelle Obama is well intentioned in bringing attention to our country’s diet-related health problems, but it seems she’d be better off asking her husband to address the deeper, underlying issues at hand rather than asking a corporation like Wal-Mart to make superficial and meaningless changes.

A version of this post was published on Civil Eats