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Walmart Attempts to Be ‘Great for You’

February 21, 2012
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With all the focus we’ve had in the last couple of weeks about healthy eating, and exercise, as being the way to end childhood obesity — and obesity in general — this article about WalMart caught my eye (well, that and the fact that my husband now works there, so I’m more aware of all things related to the company). Considering that our local grocery store is also using the NuVal system to rate all the food in their store, and local paper wrote an article about it, I had to read both and compare, of course.
First, I have to give some background about the town in which I live: Sauk Centre is small (population less than 4,300), and we’re about 45 miles west of St Cloud, Minnesota. The next largest town close to us is Alexandria, 20 miles west of us (population ~11,000).

We have three main places to buy groceries here in Sauk: a WalMart superstore, Coborn’s grocery store, and Schaefer’s Market (mostly a meat market with a few groceries). And then there’s the Food N’ Fuel, Casey’s, and Holiday gas stations where you can get eggs, milk, cheese, fast food, and soda. There are also a variety of places where you can go out to eat, everything from fine dining to fast food.

We have our fair share of fat people; I see them all the time when I shop at Coborn’s and WalMart, and I see them when we go out to eat at the River’s Edge Restaurant and the Sauk Hop Diner (and yes, I see them at Hardee’s and McDonald’s too, along with all the thin/average people who eat there too). So that’s our small town in central Minnesota that has grocery stores jumping on the healthy food labeling bandwagon.

WalMart is rolling out what they call “Great for You”:

The bright green icon will start appearing on the front packaging of select Walmart-brand Great Value and Marketside items, as well as on fresh and packaged fruits and vegetables, later this spring. It’s part of the company’s healthier food initiative, which also includes lowering prices on fruits and vegetables, and reformulating thousands of packaged food items by 2015 to reduce sodium and added sugars. According to Walmart, the icon will also be made available to national brand products that qualify.

The criteria for labeling is strict, and according to Marion Nestle, nutrition expert and author of What to Eat, Walmart is, in fact, excluding nearly 80 percent of their Great Value products that don’t currently measure up.

Now, while I don’t really need someone to label foods for me to tell me this can of soup has less sodium than that can, or this bag of chips has less fat than that one (I’m perfectly capable of reading labels, thank you very much), I applaud WalMart for lowering prices on fruits and vegetables, and for reformulating their packaged foods to reduce sodium and added sugars. All of that is a step in the right direction to make healthy food more affordable and more accessible for everyone. And if WalMart is going to do this for their packaged foods, will it be long before other companies follow, just to stay competitive?

“These criteria are similar (but not identical) to those recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its recent report advising the FDA about what should be included in front-of-package labels.

“Because the FDA has not yet acted on the IOM report, Walmart—like other retailers—is jumping the gun in doing its own thing,” Nestle writes.

Which brings me to our other local grocery store, Coborn’s (they’re a chain here in Minnesota). They’re jumping on the labeling bandwagon, but they’re using the NuVal system, which I blogged about almost three years ago on my blog (which I’ve sadly neglected here of late).

I can’t access the online website for the Sauk Center Herald for some reason (I should be able to, we subscribe to the paper and get it by mail every week). But according to the article in the paper:

Consumers today are bombarded with a host of news stories and advertising about how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Since last August, consumers at the Coborn’s store in Sauk Centre have been able to use a new rating system to help sort through that type of clutter.

A recent collaboration between CentraCare Health Foundation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Coborn’s Inc. has resulted in the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System at 29 Coborn’s store locations across the Midwest.

OK, I’ve been shopping at our local Coborn’s store and I haven’t seen any NuVal signage in the store to date (but then again, I didn’t know it was there until I saw the article in the paper). So I have to ask, how useful is this information if people don’t even know it’s there?

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I go grocery shopping, I’m not really looking for signage that’s going to tell me this item is better for me than that item. I’m looking at prices. Is this brand cheaper than that brand? Are the sizes the same for the price? And so on. Then I read the labels to check ingredients for things like sodium, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), carbs, protein, etc.

I have enough trouble finding what I’m looking for in the store with the way they’re always moving product from one aisle to another and one shelf to another, while checking prices and sizes, without having to also look for signs telling me if my purchase is less healthy than another item next to it.

Rising rates of obesity and diabetes in adults and children are in the news all the time. Coborn’s sees the NuVal ratings as one way to help improve public health.

Just because the news is citing rising rates of obesity doesn’t make it so (Shannon has debunked that claim how many times?). Does it still need repeating? (Yes, yes it does, every time some asshat cites rising obesity rates.) As for those rising rates of diabetes, I’m not convinced the statistics haven’t been rigged. Maybe more people are being diagnosed, but is it really because more people have diabetes, or is it because more people are being tested, including children?

And are more people being diagnosed because the diagnostic standard has been lowered, and lowered again, during the last 40 years? Test people who normally wouldn’t have been tested and lower the diagnostic level for diabetes, and of course you’re going to see more people diagnosed. Doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

But back to WalMart. Not everyone thinks the labeling is necessary.

Others, like Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says people already have the data they need to make informed choices.

“Just turn the box around and take a look at the Nutrition Facts Panel. You do not need a special rating system to tell you that fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats are good for you,” she tells ABC News.

When I shop, I check labels for things like amount of sodium, amount of fat, grams of carbs relative to grams of fiber, does it have HFCS, trans fats, whole grains, etc. But before I got married, I never worried about any of that, and guess what? As long as I wasn’t dieting, my weight was stable, my blood pressure was normal, my blood sugar was normal, my cholesterol was normal (and I ate the same way I’ve been eating all my life, more or less).

I shop differently now and read labels, not because I’m worried about my health or the fact that I’m fat and it’s going to kill me (hasn’t yet, not in 35 years, probably won’t any time soon), but because my husband has type 2 diabetes and I need to know these things about what food I’m buying and cooking for him so he can better control his blood glucose and avoid the complications of type 2 diabetes.

I educated myself about T2D, what he should be doing, and reading labels so I could help him. I don’t need NuVal and Coborn’s to tell me how to do that, nor do I need WalMart and their “Great for You” labels to do that either.

The funny thing about cooking and eating to control blood glucose? I eat the same way my husband does (and I eat less than he does, my stomach is much smaller because of that failed WLS) and, you know, I haven’t lost any weight to speak of (my weight has been stable, within 20 lbs, for the last 10 years). So it’s possible to eat a healthy diet, have all the healthy numbers that doctors want you to have (whether you use the NuVal or “Great for You” systems or not), and still be fat. These systems are not going to end the “obesity-epidemic-that-isn’t” and all the hype in the world won’t make it so.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 11:47 am

    Well said. Thank you.

  2. February 21, 2012 1:05 pm

    The labelling system is a racket, and not just because of its implications for fat people. As you say, this (cover) story is one that is old and has been repeated countless times: “We’re all going to eat HEALTHIER from now on!!!” The thing that irritates me the most about it is the repetition. One thing that fat activists fight in this culture is that no one remembers anything that has happened more than three days ago. Even when one of us explains the situation coherently, it’s as if everyone has forgotten about it within about half a week. I wish I were overstating the matter.

  3. February 22, 2012 12:10 am

    Walmart is the DEVIL and I hate it.

    That being said, I have to acknowledge and say I appreciate their attempts to make nutritious food more affordable and available. That being said, I DO NOT appreciate, and infact oppose, their desire to bring GMO corn into their stores. Fuck you, Walmart. You’re everything that’s wrong with capitalism.

    • February 22, 2012 10:59 am

      I do appreciate that Walmart does try to make more available to people who otherwise might not be able to afford it.

      That said, I come from a union family. The day I enter a Walmart voluntarily is the day Hell freezes over.

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