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Wal-Mart plans simple label to identify healthier foods

Eli Meir Kaplan / The Atlantic

A produce aisle of a Wal-Mart is seen in this file photo.

Wal-Mart is unveiling a simple icon that it says will help consumers make a snap decision about whether a food is healthy, without delving into the nitty-gritty of the nutrition label.

The move by the nation's biggest retailer to label some food products as "Great For You," being unveiled Tuesday, could be a significant development in the fight against obesity because of the company's enormous influence in the marketplace, over both consumers and food vendors eager to sell into the Wal-Mart supply chain.

There have been fumbles in the past. In 2009, major food makers backed off a plan to label foods as “smart choices” after the Food and Drug Administration, which has been working on a standard system for such logos, noted that many competing nutrition symbols could be confusing. At the time, some food makers were criticized for trying to market items such as mayonnaise and sugary cereals as “smart choices.”

The FDA has not finished its standards, but Wal-Mart is moving ahead to slap a green jumping-jack-shaped icon onto certain in-house Great Value and Marketside products as well as on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Wal-Mart will provide detailed criteria for the "Great For You" label on its website but is trying to give an easy visual cue to busy shoppers roaming the grocery aisles in its thousands of stores.

Wal-Mart plans to slap this label on produce and some house-brand packaged food items.

“If you’re walking down the aisles you’ll basically be able to see the better choices,” said Leslie Dach, the company’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, in a news briefing.

Wal-Mart announced plans to develop the icon last year, as part of a heavily promoted initiative endorsed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her push to fight obesity. Wal-Mart also has promised to reduce prices on healthier items, offer more stores in underserved “food deserts” and reduce sodium, sugar and trans fats in certain packaged foods.

The first “Great For You” icons will start appearing in produce aisles in April, company executives said. The labels then will gradually roll out on certain store-branded packaged items throughout the year.

Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability, said other companies that supply food to Wal-Mart could choose to use the icon if they wished. If consumers start shifting their behavior as a result of the labels, she said that could provide an incentive to other food makers to adopt the system.

Christina Roberto, a doctoral student with Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity who is studying food labeling, said the idea of a simple label is a good one – as long as the criteria for what gets the label is sound.

“It will be important to think about, ‘What nutrition criteria are they using?’” she said.

Wal-Mart said it conducted rigorous tests to make sure no unusual products squeaked through in its guidelines.

“There are no candy bars that would qualify,” Thomas said.

The company said it developed its criteria by looking at government guidelines and working with health organizations and other parties interested in healthy eating.

For example:

  • Raisins will get the icon, but dried fruit with sugar added would not.
  • Plain oatmeal qualifies, but sweetened oatmeal does not.
  • Brown rice will get the label. White rice will not.
  • Plain or artificially sweetened yogurt makes the cut, but yogurt sweetened with sugar does not.
  • Skim milk would carry the icon, but whole milk would not.

Some decisions were harder than others. For example eggs ultimately were included because they are a good, low-cost source of protein despite concerns over cholesterol, Thomas said.

Thomas said Wal-Mart looked closely at FDA definitions to avoid potential conflicts but was not willing to wait for the FDA to come out with a standardized labeling system.

FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said in an email that the government agency is still working to create a standard front-of-package labeling system, and appreciates Wal-Mart's interest in making a tool intended to help consumers make healthy choices.

Other retailers also have experimented with offering healthy food labels, as part of efforts to address nationwide obesity problems.

For example, grocery chain Supervalu has a “nutrition iQ” system that uses color-coded shelf tags to identify which foods at its stores are healthier.

But Wal-Mart, as the nation's biggest grocer, inherently has more power and influence.

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst with NPD Group and an expert on eating habits, said new health labels tend to get noticed because consumers are always looking for something different.

But he said his research has consistently shown that people think about other things first, such as taste and value.

“Health is always a secondary consideration in the foods and beverages that you eat,” Balzer said.

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