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Should shoppers trust Walmart’s ‘Great for You’ nutrition labels? Add to ...

Update: Walmart has said that it will not extend the Great for You food-labelling program to Canada.

Walmart, the multi-national retail giant, launched a new health-labelling program for its grocery products this week that will affix green “Great for You” labels on foods that meet the company’s nutritional criteria. The program is expected to take effect in the company’s US stores this spring, Walmart said.

(The company’s Canadian arm has not announced the program here, and hadn’t yet responded to a request for information earlier today.)

Unlike many other industry-driven nutrition labelling efforts, however, this one is drawing praise from healthy eating advocates.

Marion Nestle, an influential U.S. nutritionist who is often critical of large food companies and the products they sell, offered qualified support, writing on her blog this week that the company’s criteria were “pretty strict,” and far better than the criteria behind a similar effort by the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute.

As Ms. Nestle points out, Walmart’s nutrition standards exclude 80 per cent of the company’s own house brand products from wearing the Great for You label. In the breakfast cereal category, for instance, just seven Walmart house brands made the cut, while ten others, including its “Cocoa Cool” and “Fruity Puffs” lines did not.

Even Michelle Obama offered her support for the program, saying, “[This] announcement by Walmart is yet another step toward ensuring that our kids are given the chance to grow up healthy.”

“The healthy seal will be another tool for parents to identify the best products for their kids. Giving parents the information they need to make healthy choices is a key piece of solving childhood obesity.”

But Ms. Nestle, like many others, is not 100 per cent on side. While a “green light” labelling system like Walmart’s can help shoppers select healthier foods, “red light” labels - ones that tell consumers what not to buy - are far more effective in influencing shopping behaviour.

Walmart, for reasons that might seem obvious, is less in favour of a “Don’t Buy Me” scheme.

“This is not meant to lecture our customers,” Leslie A. Dach, Walmart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, told The New York Times earlier this week. “They can buy a dessert when they want to. But when they want to buy a cracker, we can help them steer them to a healthier cracker if that’s what they’re looking for.”

Here in Canada, Loblaw, the national grocery chain, has begun affixing nutritional labels to some of the products it carries under a separate program. That effort has also drawn qualified praise.

Walmart wrestled in some cases with the criteria behind the label, The New York Times’ report says. “It debated, for example, whether to put the Great for You label on eggs, which are high in cholesterol but are an inexpensive source of protein for many low-income families.”

“Originally, eggs didn’t make the cut,” Mr. Dach told the paper. “But eggs are important to people on a tight budget, and we went over it with consumer groups, medical groups, education groups and came to the consensus that eggs play an important role in family budgets and so they get the icon.”

And the company is sure to anger just as many food and nutrition experts with its criteria as it pleases - particularly with its credit to no-fat and low-fat products. In an angry, but unrelated blog posting this week, Michael Ruhlman, a respected food writer and cookbook author, went thermonuclear on people who argue that fat is inherently dangerous.

“Fat is good for you. Fat is good for your body. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Fat doesn’t make you fat, EATING TOO MUCH MAKES YOU FAT!” Mr. Ruhlman writes. “Eating every morsel of your mile high Cheesecake Factory plate is what makes you fat. Eating a whole bag of Doritos is what makes you fat. Eating when you’re not hungry makes you fat!”

So take that, Walmart. You can have your cheesecake. Just don’t eat too much of it though.

Are “green light” health labels good enough, or should grocers be forced to add “Don’t Buy Me” labels to unhealthy foods?

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Follow on Twitter: @cnutsmith

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