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Market-moving Walmart zeros in on healthy food

Maybe Walmart's customers can start living better, as the company's tagline proclaims. According to The New York Times, the retail behemoth unveiled a five-year plan to slash the prices of its fruits and vegetables and reformulate thousands of its private-label packaged foods to make them lower in salt, fat and sugar. Walmart also plans to “press its major food suppliers, like Kraft, to follow its example,” build more stores in “food deserts” and up its charitable donations to nutrition programs.

Walmart’s mission to improve the health profile of the food it sells and make healthy food more affordable and accessible was born out of discussions the company has been having with Michelle Obama, The New York Times reports.

Although such an initiative is not new, Walmart is not your average retailer or corporate entity. If any organization has the might to move a market, it’s Walmart—a company that holds powerful sway over manufacturers, suppliers and even other retailers. By focusing on offering healthier alternatives in its popular and price competitive private-label brand, Walmart will force other food manufacturers and retailers to do the same or lose more business to Walmart and its Great Value brand.

As Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told The New York Times: “A number of companies have said they are going to make voluntary reductions in sodium over the next several years, and numerous companies have said they are going to try to get trans fat out of their food. But Walmart is in a position almost like the Food and Drug Administration. I think it really pushes the food industry in the right direction.”

Rather than squeezing its suppliers—as Walmart is known to do—the retailer says it will eat into its own profits to lower the prices of the fruits and vegetables it sells. “This is not about asking the farmers to accept less for their crops,” Leslie Dach, Walmart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs told The New York Times.

Walmart also has the power to greatly influence the health of millions of Americans. To date, this influence often has been less than positive. (According to a new study, people who live in communities that are home to a Walmart Supercenter are at greater risk of obesity.)

The changes won’t come overnight, however. Walmart says it wants to reformulate its private-label offerings slowly so that people can adapt to the taste of healthier food that isn’t loaded with sodium and sugar. The company also admitted that it has not solved its “reformulation challenges”—which could provide opportunities for ingredient suppliers and contract manufacturers who have already tackled these issues.

As someone who has been opposed over the years to many of the Walmart’s supply practices and ability to stamp out local businesses, I applaud the company’s efforts to make a positive change in the way its millions of customers eat. Although the initiative is not perfect (Walmart is not addressing unhealthy sugary drinks, for example), it is a step—from a very big foot—in the right direction.

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