Friday, April 15, 2011

The Food Industry Continues to Sell What People Want to Buy

The New York Times recently published the article “Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods.” Wal-Mart has a five-year plan to lower the prices of fruits and vegetables and to lower the amount of salt, sugar, saturated fats and trans fats in many of its store-brand packaged foods. Wall-Mart is the country’s leading grocery seller. Michell Obama is endorsing the plan.

Since rates of obesity are worst in low-income populations (“Lower Income Neighborhoods Associate with Higher Obesity Rates”), and people with low-incomes tend to shop at Wal-Mart, this initiative could be modestly helpful. There was a time when I bought groceries at Wal-Mart regularly, and it was a struggle, though not impossible, to find healthy food there.
The way to buy healthy foods at Wal-Mart (or anywhere) is not to buy Great Value Hamburger Noodle Dinner, Now with Less Sodium. It is to buy basic ingredients. I used to buy dry beans, uncooked rice, cans of Tuna, big jugs of olive oil and cartons of plain unsweetened soy milk.
Meanwhile the food industry has come together to put labels on the front of their packages that repeat in larger print some of the same information that is already on the standard nutrition label (“Food Makers Devise Own Label Plan”). The Obama administration wanted package-front labels to warn about the calories, sugar, sodium, and saturated fat in certain foods.
The industry decided that foods can include two healthy nutrients on the label as well, like fiber or vitamin C. The administration rightly says this renders the label unhelpful. What could have been a red flag on unhealthy food  is now just a list of contradicting information.
In the end, the food industry will only change as far as consumers want it to. Wal-Mart in not changing its food to promote health but to promote sales; they believe consumers want the changes. What the Obama administration should be spending time and money to change is not the food industry but nutrition education. Then we can all vote with our dollars and the food industry will happily sell us whatever we want, as they already do.

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