Healthy labeling could be subjective

Feb 17, 2012

Walmart recently announced a new labeling program that would help consumers identify healthy choices. The items must meet standards informed by dietary guidelines in line with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US- DA and the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

While they are not the first company to come up with a plan like this, they are gaining lots more press from their announcement, in part because of their enormous consumer presence.

The plan, and others like it, on the surface is appealing, but it is causing a bit of a stir on the producer front.

The new bright green label, with the words Great for You, will first appear on Walmart’s Great Value and Marketside brands. But Walmart executives said the company planned to allow other brands to use the label without paying any licensing fee on products that meet the criteria.

Despite the program’s efforts, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) put out a press release condemning Walmart’s inclusion of eggs. According to CSPI, eggs are still on the bad list.

“For these food cops it really isn’t about what is healthy but about what they say is healthy,” according to the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Walmart said it’s reducing the fat, sugar and sodium in some of its own private-label foods and will more aggressively market other healthy grocery items starting in April.

The company said the “Great for You” products meet the rigorous nutrition criteria established by FDA, USDA and IOM.

“Moms are telling us they want to make healthier choices for their families but need help deciphering all the claims and information already displayed on products,” said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart.

One difference that sets Walmart’s labeling system apart from other nutrition labeling systems is that the label is on the front of the product rather than on store shelves.

But skeptics have come out in droves.

“I believe that Walmart’s initiative, in principle, is an excellent one, provided that the labeling is based on sound nutritional evidence,” said Pascal Imperato, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York. “A stamp of approval as ‘healthy’ could mislead if it is not linked to label information about vitamin and mineral content, fat and sugar levels, chemical additives ... all of which are of importance to sound and healthy nutrition.”

“People already have the information they need on the food label,” said Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “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.”

“The food industry, at the end of the day, is in the business to make money by selling food. If a ‘healthy’ label on their product gets it to be sold more, then they will try that—even if it’s not true,” Dr. Stephen Cook of Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center told ABC News.

But Walmart stands by its new “Great for You” label, and says it will make it easier for customers to make healthy choices.

“Walmart’s effort to bring healthier food to kitchen tables nationwide was inspired by our customers and informed by the latest food science and policy,” said Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart.

The plan criteria uses a two-step process: • Step one focuses on encouraging people to eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, lowfat dairy, nuts and seeds and lean meats. Examples of these items include brown rice, 1 percent milk, raw almonds and 93 percent lean ground beef. • Step two limits the amount of total, trans and saturated fats, sodium and added sugars that can be found in items such as sweetened oatmeal, granola bars, flavored yogurt and frozen meals. — Traci Eatherton,

WLJ Editor