Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Health Check vs.
Heart Check:
Getting Practical Nutrition Data to the Public

I was recently in Canada on a business trip for my "day job". During a free moment I visited a supermarket to look for interesting food items. As it turns out, food items for a LS/LF diet in Canada are rather similar to those in the US and low salt bread is just as hard to find as in the US. (In Australia it is much more available.)

I soon noticed the "Health Check" label of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada at left above on many food items along with a URL. Note it is very similar to the American Heart Association's "Heart Check" label - at right above. So I thought I would compare the 2 program's especially since I have been annoyed for a while with AHA's attention to the needs of the millions of American's with conditions requiring LS/LF diets.

A major difference between the 2 programs is transparency. It is much easier to see the goals and functioning of the Canadian program. The AHA program gives the impression of being a fund raising/marketing program more than a health program. The financial goals of the Canadian program are simply stated:
"The Health Check TM program is run on a non-profit, cost-recovery basis and remains financially independent from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Federal Government. The costs related to product and packaging review, testing, program administration, promotion, consumer education and product evaluation are recovered through modest fees collected from participating companies. Any surplus funds will be used for nutrition education and the promotion of healthy eating for Canadians."
And the fees paid by manufacturers are clearly stated. The AHA's comparable information is cryptic at best.

So what do the 2 marks really mean? AHA's Heart Check label comes in 2 flavors:

Standard Certification Whole-Grains Certification
Total Fat 3 gms or less Less than 6.5 gms
Saturated Fat 1 gm or less 1 gm or less
Cholesterol 20 mg or less 20 mg or less
Sodium 480 mg or less 480 mg or less
Contain 10% or more of the daily value of 1 of 6 nutrients; vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber Yes Yes
Trans fat* Less than .5 gm Less than .5 gm
Whole grain
51% by weight/Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC)
Minimum Dietary Fiber

1.7 g/RACC of 30 gms
2.5 g/RACC of 45 gms
2.8 g/RACC of 50 gms
3.0 g/RACC of 55 gms

Seafood, game meat, meat and poultry must meet the standards for "extra lean."

Note that there is a salt limit, but it is 480 mg of sodium per serving. This is more than 3 times the FDA limit of 140 mg for labeling as "low sodium" products. (However, it is less than the common salt content of many name brand canned soups.)

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends <2300 mg of sodium per day for the general public and <1500 mg of sodium/day for individuals with hypertension, blacks, and middle-aged and older adults. Clearly "Heart Check" is paying scant attention to the dietary salt issues of Americans.

Note that the general population should eat fewer than 5 servings of "Heart Check" products to meet salt guidelines and the others should eat 3 or fewer servings. The comparable Canadian "Health Check" criteria has dozens of categories for different types of food. While the current limit is generally the same 480 mg of sodium as AHA, the Canadians have announced new limits being phased in in the next 2 years that are generally 240 mg of sodium/serving - although higher and lower for a few products. But in virtually all cases they are less than the AHA 480 mg of sodium goal. Why can Canadian industry meet these goals but US industry can't?

Note: Do not confuse these programs with the "Smartspot"/"Smart Choices Made Easy" label that appears on some food products. This is a proprietary label of Pepsico for their "healthier" products. Some, like Quaker oatmeal are quite healthy. But Pepsico is even less transparent than AHA and gives no stated criteria for their use of this label. Thus read the FDA-mandated nutrition label before buying any such product until Pepsico decides to level with the public.

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