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Will New Walmart Food Labels Improve Health?

Walmart announced this week that it will introduce new labeling on select foods in its stores. The labels, which will begin to appear this spring, will alert customers about those foods that have been vetted for health. Foods that meet the health criteria will be labeled with a bright green front-of-package seal with the words “Great For You” on Great Value and Marketside items, as well as fresh and packaged fruits and vegetables. Learn more about Walmart’s new food labeling.

In a press release, the company stated that the new labeling aimed to help make purchasing decisions easier for moms, and that it would serve as a step toward achieving a population of healthier kids and lower rates of obesity. The move got the thumbs up from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was also quoted in the release. The company also announced that it would be reformulating thousands of packaged food items by the year 2015 in an effort to reduce sodium and added sugars in their Great Value brand. Both the labeling and the repackaging is part of the company’s healthy food initiative.

To meet the Walmart standards of a “Great for You” food, it must contain certain healthy components and be limited in fat, sugar and sodium. Proteins, fruits and vegetables (bagged and canned – there was no mention of frozen)  and whole grain foods get the seal, as do dairy, beans, and eggs. Approximately a fifth of the store’s foods will have the label.

Will the new labeling efforts lead to better health? According to Food Politics author Marion Nestle, it may prove to be more nutritional clutter in an already untidy landscape. Nestle told the New York Times
that while she approves of the strict guidelines for the labels, she fears they may only promote sales, not health.

It’s no surprise the labeling effort has met with groans from those who study food and nutrition. Labels have been long abused by food companies that advertise healthiness on packages that contain foods that meet no such criteria. Such misleading marketing has jaded both experts and consumers, not to mention prompted legal action. Walmart’s “Great For You” seal may drive home the health factor for some truly healthy products, but whether the label will lead to change in our eating habits and our health remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the principles of healthy shopping at the grocery store remain the same:

  • Shop the perimeter of the store: that’s where healthier, whole foods hang out.
  • Read Nutrition Facts labels, not front-of-package claims.
  • Know the Good Guys from the Bad Guys.
  • Look for foods with the fewest ingredients.
  • Choose more foods that have no labels at all (like fresh fruits and vegetables or their equally nutrient-rich frozen counterparts).
  • Augment your grocery store shopping with local and farmers markets foods whenever possible.

Get label savvy. Learn the latest in Food Labeling & Nutrition from the FDA.

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