How Good Is Walmart’s ‘Great For You’ Nutrition Labeling?

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Walmart announced this week that it will highlight healthy foods in stores with bright green “Great For You” labels.

Starting in the spring, labels will appear on foods sold under Walmart’s house brands and on fresh fruits and vegetables. The retailer’s executives said they would also allow the label to be used on other brands without a fee, according to the New York Times.

The initiative is part of a broader effort by Walmart to improve the nutritional quality of the food it sells and to make it easier for busy customers to make healthy choices. The “Great For You” designation is based on nutritional criteria developed by Walmart, which unlike other “front-of-pack” labeling systems, are actually pretty strict, nutritionists said.

According to Walmart, products that get the label will meet the nutritional guidelines laid out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Institute of Medicine. This means the “Great For You” criteria will limit the amount of total saturated fat, trans fats, additional sugar and sodium allowed. The guidelines exclude most of the products Walmart sells, including sugary cereals.

MORE: U.S. Panel Urges ‘Energy Star’ Nutrition Ratings for Food Labels

Overall, nutrition experts applauded the plan, but many also questioned its ultimate benefit. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told the New York Times that she opposes such labels in principle because they’re often just “green ‘buy me’ schemes.” “Will this increase sales of so-called better for you Walmart brand products? Maybe. Will it make people healthier? That’s going to be a much more difficult question to answer,” she said.

“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.

Some observers argued that the labeling would be redundant. As Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also told ABC:

People already have the information they need on the food label. 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.

But consumers who are interested in eating healthy do seem to find storewide nutrition-labeling systems helpful, Sandon said, and Walmart wouldn’t be the first retailer to install one. (Click here to see nutrition-rating systems around the world.) And as the Times points out, “as the country’s largest grocery store chain and one that caters in particular to budget-conscious consumers, [Walmart] plays an influential role in the health of American families.” First Lady Michelle Obama, who has championed national healthy eating and fitness programs, has supported Walmart’s efforts.

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Still, nutritionists say what we really need is one standardized system. A panel of government experts last year recommended the adoption of just such a standard nutritional-rating system for all packaged foods sold in all stores across the country. The proposed system, modeled after the Energy Star ratings that appear on household appliances, would show calories per serving and award foods up to three points (or checkmarks or stars) for meeting acceptable levels of sodium, added sugars and trans fats or saturated fats. The more points a food has, the healthier it is. It’s now up to the Food and Drug Administration to decide whether or how to implement the system. Although the agency has been eager to overhaul front-of-pack labeling, it says it is still studying the matter.