Over the past few weeks, Walmart’s gotten great press for its new initiative to eliminate industrially added trans fats from all its products and reduce sodium by a quarter, and sugar by a tenth, in the company’s processed foods.
On its face, this sounds terrific. Few people deny that Americans should eat less trans fat, sodium and sugar than we currently consume.
The company also promises to build stores in “food deserts” where fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t currently available, and to lower the price of produce in relation to processed foods. This only sweeten the deal (figuratively but of course not literally).
But to determine whether these moves will actually help anyone, it pays to take a look not only at the size of Walmart’s changes but at where it’s starting from. A new study about Walmart also came out these past few weeks. It finds that where new Walmarts go, obesity soon follows.
In the study, obesity climbed by 2.3% in the ten years following the addition of a Walmart supercentre to a new location.
Now, the reason for the increase in obesity isn’t necessarily clear. A 2.3% rise doesn’t sound like much over a 10 year period, seeing as obesity in the general American population has doubled over the past 30 years. In fact, it almost seems like an abnormally slow increase.
But theoretically the study controlled for such factors, and so I can only imagine that the impact of a new Walmart was 2.3% more obese adults than we’d have seen had the supercenter not been built.
And that figure is significant.
Why the increase? My guess is, Walmart drives down the price of processed foods by more than it lowers the price of produce. So, while people can afford a lot more processed food when Walmart moves in, they can’t necessarily afford more produce. So people may be likely to shift their consumption from produce to processed food.
Hence the weight gain.
So, in looking at Walmart’s new initiative, the question may not be whether they’re lowering prices of produce, or the trans fat, salt and sugar content of processed food, but by how much. If produce remains significantly more expensive in a Walmart relative to the difference in conventional grocery stores, then this may have little impact on obesity. And if sodium and sugar levels in processed foods are already too high for our bodies to handle, will a 25% or 10% change be enough to make a meaningful difference?
I guess the results have yet to be seen. Maybe in another 10 years we’ll have obesity data on areas there Walmart’s initiative have–or haven’t–made a difference.