01/24/2011 07:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Walmart: Changing the Nation's Food Supply?

Food companies, particularly manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and General Mills, and fast food players such as McDonald's, are in an all-out press to gain the trust of the public and government officials, and to fight off both bad publicity and the threat of government regulation. The industry is vulnerable because it has created, marketed, and sold foods that damage public health and contribute to rising health care costs.

The food sellers, chains such as Walmart and Kroger, and convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, have an important role. A significant development occurred when Walmart announced it would make key changes in its food business. The company promised to reduce the sodium in it's store-brand packaged foods by 25 percent and added sugars by 10 percent, to remove trans fats entirely, to drive down the cost of produce, and to make several additional changes. The question is whether this is a wolf in sheep's clothing meant to buy goodwill while protecting the status quo, or is a real effort to help improve the nation's diet.

I see the Walmart initiative as an important development that could have far-reaching, positive consequences. There are three reasons for this.

First, Walmart is so large, so visible and so powerful that the world notices when it changes. This will bring a great deal of attention to the public health potential of reformulating foods to create healthier products.

Second, millions of people will benefit because they purchase store-brand products at Walmart. This itself is a positive development.

Third, the food manufacturers should feel pressure to reformulate their products, lest they be seen as laggards standing in the way of the nation's efforts to reduce health care costs. If Walmart can make their foods healthier and consumers still find them acceptable, there is no reason other companies cannot do the same. In this way, changes inside Walmart could be amplified through changes elsewhere.

A 25 percent reduction in sodium is significant. Further reductions are necessary and could be forthcoming as consumers adjust to lower levels of salt. A 10 percent reduction in added sugars is nowhere near the final goal, but the Walmart announcement characterizes this as only a first step.

Food companies have systematically trained Americans to eat in perverse ways. We now expect extreme levels of sweetness, fattiness, and saltiness in our foods. We turn a blind eye to countless chemicals and artificial ingredients in food products. People now eat in their cars, snack all day long, are exposed to enormous portions, and have food available 24 hours a day in multiple locations.

It is time to turn this ship around. Much like companies that have polluted the environment help pay to undo the damage, and must correct their practices, the food industry will be held accountable for its actions and will be required to change. Walmart is a customer of this industry and therefore has great leverage. By changing its own products it creates a model for others to change theirs.

Walmart has taken a bold step and I believe others will follow. The public will be the beneficiary, particularly if the ripple effects throughout the food industry are substantial. If the change stops with Walmart, a major opportunity will be lost. Let us hope that Walmart does even more and that others follow their impressive lead.

Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University