man eating junk foodWith approximately 65% of Americans either obese or overweight, it would seem that a push for healthier eating by a behemoth like Walmart would go a long way towards helping people shed some unwanted pounds. Will it?

Walmart announced last week that it will reduce, by 2015, the sodium content of thousands of packaged food items by 25% and added sugars by 10%, and that it will remove all industrially produced trans fats. The company has also said it will make healthier choices more affordable – saving customers about $1 billion per year on fresh fruits and vegetables – by improving the efficiency of its supply chain.

“Ultimately, Walmart can’t control what consumers eat, but it can influence the set of options from which consumers make food choices,” says Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams. “To the extent that these options are healthier, consumers have more opportunities to eat a healthier diet.” Still, it’s not a slam dunk. “If processed foods, even with lower sodium and sugar, are cheaper or more efficient for consumers than fresh foods,” Williams adds, “this [new initiative] may not result in the kinds of changes” that society needs.

Then there is the taste question. Can consumers come to love food with less salt and sugar? Linda Sartor, a diabetes nutritionist at the Penn Rodebaugh Diabetes Center, thinks they can. “It takes at least a week or two for our taste buds to make the adjustment,” she says. “But it can happen. It’s just a matter of the average person being  willing to give it a shot.” Many people don’t realize that for those who are significantly overweight, “it can take as little as an eight-pound weight loss to really bring down cholesterol and blood pressure which can make a huge difference in health care costs, medications and quality of life.”

Walmart shoppers, many of whom are working class, often haven’t had “access to healthier foods at a fair price,” Sartor adds. “The company is saying that these people deserve the same healthy food as those who can afford specialty items.” An earlier effort five years ago to sell more organic foods at affordable prices, however, fizzled. Questions were raised at the time as to whether the company could lower organic food prices enough to appeal to its shoppers, and whether its supply chain system could handle the unique challenges of organic food distribution.

Can the company, which had sales last year of $408 billion and employs 2.1 million people in 8,400 stores around the world, be doing anything else? “They could always offer discounts on their exercise equipment,” says Sartor, and they could also make sure that fresh fruits and vegetables are available in all Walmarts, which isn’t the case today.

Overall, says Williams, Walmart is “to be commended.” Obesity and poor nutrition are “serious issues that need to be addressed; having such an enormously important food retailer begin to make changes in this area is tremendous. It will have ripple effects throughout the category.”