February 7, 2011

Wal-Mart and "Healthy" Food

I'm sure you've all heard about Wal-Mart's 5 year plan to cut salt, fats, and sugar in thousands of its packaged foods. The plan calls for a reduction of sodium by 25%, sugar by 10%, and the elimination of trans fats. They also plan to "...develop criteria, and ultimately a seal, that will go on truly healthier foods, as measured by their sodium, fat and sugar content (emphasis mine)."

I have a very hard time trying to figure out how to react to this. On the one hand, obviously, if people are eating these things then eating a slightly better version is good, right? But, if all we ever do is come up with ways to make terrible things slightly better while leaving them still terrible we are never going to make the radical change we need for real improvements in health and longevity.

Also, how did we come to a place where "healthy" is defined by how little fat, sugar, and salt something has in it? By this measure, Styrofoam, plastic forks, and drywall screws are good options for lunch because there's no demon salt, fat, or sugar! It's a ridiculous metric and it shows how confused we've become about what food is and what makes it "good" food. 

So I'll tell you: Healthy food is nutritious food. That is to say it is full of nutrients. It is food that is whole. It might be fermented, or ground, leavened and baked, or roasted. But it does not have significant portions of its original self removed (white flour for example... adios bran and germ). Also, healthy food is not chemically deconstructed and put back together in new and exciting ways. Healthy food is not going to be indefinitely shelf stable. The reason there is so much salt, sugar, and trans fats in processed food is because otherwise it tastes terrible.

Michelle Obama, at Wal-Mart's press conference to announce these changes, said "...I clearly remember that one of the things that made my life just a little more difficult was trying to figure out which foods were healthy and which ones weren't." But here's the thing...

If it is possible for Wal-Mart to reduce sodium, sugar, and trans fats in a product, that product is probably not healthy. This is a good rule of thumb: don't eat anything that Wal-Mart can "improve". 

Packaged granola bars? Not healthy. Canned condensed soup? Not healthy. Snack cakes? Not healthy. Complete frozen dinner? Not healthy. Shelf stable loaf of bread? Not healthy.

It doesn't matter if you make it low fat, low salt, or low sugar - those types of products are hardly even food any more. They are made from extremely processed ingredients which no longer resemble their whole counterparts, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors, and made palatable through texture and flavor enhancers like "lecithin" and "hydrolyzed soy protein".

You can argue that those things are not harmful and that's fine. Maybe it's debatable. But they are not healthy. They do not contribute to good health. At best they're neutral. They are not actual food.

Our culture needs to be headed in the direction of eating real, whole foods. There are plenty of reasons people have for why they can't cook at home and it's true that some people live so close to the margins they literally can't spare the time. However, I think the hard truth that many of you will not like to hear is: it is a choice to de-prioritize eating real foods.

Many nourishing things take very little time to prepare but we no longer know how to cook. Instead of working with Wal-Mart to figure out how to make terrible fake food slightly less bad Michelle Obama and others need to be working on how to get information out there on how to cook actual food.

We may have forgotten how to cook but we don't need to let Wal-Mart cook for us, do it badly, and then charge us a bundle. Instead we need to stop trying to "fix" what Wal-Mart is serving us and take responsibility for our lives. If you decide to continue to eat processed fake foods, even those with the Wal-Mart "healthy seal of approval", don't let marketers fool you into thinking the stuff is actually healthy... do it because you have decided that convenience is your top priority.


  1. I am with you - in terms of how the heck do you react to that. I think actually chewing on the drywall screw for lunch might be better for me. So glad I have made major changes to how we eat. Emily

  2. There was a time when convenience was a priority for us as a 5 member family. Bill and I both worked and all 3 kids were going in different directions.

    Now it's just the two of us and we are able to think more about the food we consume. I have to admit that it's hard teaching an old dog new tricks. But he's coming around.

  3. Annie are you doing ok? We miss you.

  4. I'm fine :-) Thanks for asking! I'll get some more posts up soon. Been working hard in the garden now that it's warmed up and time is just flying by.

  5. Annie, I miss you. Weight Watchers should start selling 100 calorie packs of drywall screws.

  6. I miss you too!

    As long as they're "very berry" or "choco toffee crunch" flavored I'm sure they could.