Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Post in Which I Actually Commend Walmart *gasp*

Unless you've been living under a rock this past week, surely you've heard that Walmart has announced that it will be lowering the salt and sugar content and eliminating trans fats in all of its own food products (i.e. the "Great Value" brand).  It'll also be lowering prices on its fruits and veggies and opening stores in "low income neighborhoods" and so-called "food deserts" (communities without full service supermarkets within a reasonable distance).

The last two facts don't impress me all that much as I don't think very much of Walmart's fresh produce and well, why wouldn't they use any excuse in the world to open stores in untapped markets.  That's what they do.  However, the first bit of info--the part about lowering the amount of "bad things" in their own foods is significant, IMHO...for a couple of reasons.

Let me just preface this by saying that I'm not patting Walmart on the back for being a good Samaritan or a stand-up member of the community it serves.  I don't believe for a moment that they don't have strong underlying reasons for doing this that center around improving their poor self image and increasing the percentage of the family budget that goes into their coffers.  This is as much marketing, if not more, than it is a gesture of good will and you can be sure the bean counters approved this plan before it went to press.  That said, on with my reasons for why this is a good thing for us:
  • Walmart is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  When Walmart does something, others follow the lead because they have to if they want to compete for consumer dollars.  I see the likes of Target, Stop & Shop, Safeway, and others jumping on the bandwagon within the year.  It's practically inevitable and just a matter of how fast they can scramble to pull it off.
  • Even though they're only making changes to their own store-brand products, the other manufacturers that sell products alongside the store brand will almost definitely jump on the bandwagon and make many of the same changes.
  • Walmart has shown us time and time again that they have the buying and negotiating power to force manufacturers of the products they sell to do things they wouldn't normally choose to do out of fear of losing one of their largest customers.  Maybe Walmart will realize the effect they're having and take a more direct approach by telling their manufacturers, "You need to follow our nutrition standards or we won't sell your products."  Okay, it's a long-shot, but I can dream anyway.  :-)
Don't think it'll make a difference?  Think even a small amount of reduction in sodium, sugar, and trans fats won't make a difference?  I ask you to take a walk around any grocery store and read the labels on the back of some of your favorite food products.

Take cottage cheese, for example.  That's a healthy food, right?  High in protein and they make low-fat versions.  Well, your average cottage cheese has over 400mg of sodium in just a half-cup serving (doesn't matter which brand--I've looked).  That's more than the USDA's new allowance for an entire meal for a high-school aged student.

How about those boxed brownies in your pantry that we all know and love?  Did you know more than half the leading brands, including Pillsbury, still have NOT removed trans fat from their formulas?  This is after the American Heart Association has told us that Trans Fats are quite possibly WORSE than saturated fats and direct cholesterol intake.

The reality is that we're a nation of sugar and sodium "junkies".  Most of the foods we buy (especially packaged ones) don't need nearly as much salt and sugar as they have in them in order to still taste "good" or to be properly preserved.  However, we've been fed so much sugar and salt by the processed food industry that many of our taste buds require more and more in order for the food to not taste bland.  It's an identical phenomenon as you see with those who eat hot sauce on everything--they need it hotter and hotter over time to still get the same zing and anything without hot sauce tastes just blah.

The great news is that if we gradually reduce the amount of sugar and salt in things, our taste buds re-adjust over time to where they should be and the food will still taste great.  What's more, the food becomes cheaper to produce.  It's a win-win situation.

So yeah, I thank the management folks at Walmart for what they're doing.  It may not be out of the pure goodness of their money-hungry hearts, but the side effects are a positive thing and I'll take it.

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