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Walmart recently unveiled a new food labeling system designed to point out what it believes to be the healthiest options among their store brands (Great Value and Marketside). Select items will be labeled with a green ‘Great for You’ symbol starting in the Spring of 2012.

The ‘Great for You’ program comes in response to Walmart’s belief that its customers need additional guidance and help deciphering existing claims on packaged items. It seems Walmart is not alone in this deduction, as a number of other popular food retailers have implemented similar systems over the past few years.

Perhaps most notably, Whole Foods Market now uses the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) to help consumers identify the store’s healthiest options. Whole Foods posts ANDI scores on items throughout the store, although produce and bulk foods are most commonly tagged. A major benefit of the ANDI scoring system is its objectivity. Foods are rated on a scale of 1 to 1,000 based solely on nutrient density. The most nutrient dense foods are those with the highest concentration of nutrients per calorie (e.g. kale, strawberries, lentils and other whole, unprocessed foods).

King Soopers (aka City Market or Kroger) has also implemented an in-store rating system they call NuVal, which uses a 1 to 100 scale to rate foods. This rating system uses an equation that weighs a food’s so-called positive attributes (including fiber, protein quality, select vitamins and minerals, etc.) against its negative attributes (including saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium). While not as objective as the ANDI system due to the introduction of “positive” and “negative” food attributes, a major benefit of the NuVal system is that it was developed by an independent panel of nutrition experts.

Issues and Concerns:

Although the introduction of a health-promoting initiative by one of the country’s largest food retailers is promising, the development and details of the rating system raise a few red flags. Some potential concerns with the ‘Great for You’ system include:

  1. All ‘Great for You’ foods are not created equal.
    For example, Walmart has designated several types of Marketside brand bagged lettuce as ‘Great for You.’ Giving the Classic Iceberg Bagged Salad the same designation as Organic Baby Spinach may lead consumers to believe they are equally healthy choices, when in fact spinach has a much higher nutrient density than iceberg lettuce. The ANDI and NuVal systems, in contrast, use a rating scale to help consumers compare food items.
  2. Often, packaged foods are not the healthiest options.
    Although Walmart’s current Great for You Product List does include a few fresh (bagged) vegetables, the majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are not packaged and therefore are not conducive to Walmart’s on-package labeling system. Michael Pollan may have said it best in this quote from his widely circulated New York Times article “Unhappy Meals”: “Of course it’s also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.”
  3. Consumer Confusion
    Although the ‘Great for You’ program is intended to make it easier for consumers to choose healthier foods, the emergence of yet another rating system may be confusing to shoppers who patronize multiple stores. For example, there is no continuity or comparability even between the three rating systems reviewed here. Each uses a different scale and different criteria.
  4. Lack of Objectivity
    The potential lack of objectivity in Walmart’s rating system stems from the fact that the store developed its own rating system and is applying it only to its own brands. This seems a bit like the National Dairy Council telling us that milk “does a body good” – so we should buy more of it! In fact, the inclusion of milk, eggs and canned meats on the ‘Great for You’ list despite copious research linking the consumption of animal products to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and a number of other chronic diseases in itself is enough to raise questions about the rating system’s objectivity.

Potential Benefits

Even if there remains some debate about which foods should be included in the ‘Great for You’ list, this program is likely to increase consumer awareness of the healthfulness of food choices. Even if the program is not a foolproof way of prompting consumers to make the best possible food choices, it could be a good way to help people make small, incremental improvements in the quality of their diet (e.g. choosing a higher fiber, lower sugar breakfast cereal).

Also on a positive note, the ‘Great for You’ labeling initiative is being implemented in conjunction with several other efforts to promote healthy foods. The company has lowered prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, and reduced the sodium, trans fat and sugar content of 165 of its store-brand products.

To learn more about the ‘Great for You’ initiative, read Walmart’s recent Press Release or visit their webpage describing the program’s Nutrition Icon Criteria.

Image Credit: beautifulcataya/Flickr