Walmart will increase healthy food offerings and reduce the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables on its shelves.  Part of the plan announced Thursday is to reduce sodium, sugar and trans-fats in its store-brand foods.

 

Shopping at the Walmart in South Philadelphia Thursday, Dawn Padgett, 35, of Northeast Philadelphia  said when she reaches for generic brands, the reason is pretty simple.

“Price,” Padgett said. “That’s No. 1, price.”

Historically, that was the point of generics. Producers could undercut national brands to attract customers. Ephraim Leibtag, who researches food markets at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the priority placed on lower price sometimes meant lower quality.

"The old story of store brands, all else being equal, most people would find some lower level of nutritional quality,” Leibtag said. “But I think that's changed and its continuing to change."

Over the last 15 years or so, Leibtag said grocery stores have started using private label brands as a way to stand out from other stores. They have added organic, all-natural and premium product lines.

“It's not just about competing on price,” Leibtag said. “Or saying OK, here's the national brand and here's the private label brand that's 5 percent or 10 percent or 20 percent cheaper, but also here are some other options."

Now, nutrition testing finds a mixed bag of results. Some generics are more healthful than national brands, some less so. Many, made in the same factories and by the same companies as national brands, are identical. 

Leibtag said it is significant that Walmart has joined the trend of diversifying store-brand offerings because the chain’s brand identity focused almost exclusively on low prices for so long.

Walmart representatives say, by 2015, the chain plans to reduce sodium in lunch meats, salad dressings and frozen entrees by 25 percent, cut added sugars in dairy items and fruit drinks by 10 percent, and remove partially hydrogenated fats from all packaged products.

The chain plans to work with suppliers to make similar changes in national brand foods. As the nation’s largest retailer, changes in Walmart's food policies could have an effect on food production nationwide.