The Hamilton Spectator - November 4th, 2009
Health Check gets nutrition makeover; Healthier-food program tightens criteria, but expert says it 'leads people to be misinformed'
The Hamilton Spectator
Wed Nov 4 2009
Byline: Carmelina Prete
Source: The Hamilton Spectator
Would you consider microwave popcorn, frozen fudge bars and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies healthy?
The Heart and Stroke Foundation does, but not for much longer.
As of Dec. 28, more than 60 products -- including Orville Redenbacher's SmartPop! popcorn, Dare Foods' Bear Paw Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies and Sobey's Compliments Balance low-fat fudge bars -- lose their stamp of approval from the Heart and Stroke Foundation as a healthy food choice.
The Health Check symbol -- that red check mark you see on food labels designed to help Canadians make healthier food choices at a glance -- is tightening its nutritional criteria.
The change means entire categories of foods -- such as cookies, snack foods and desserts -- will no longer be allowed to carry the Health Check symbol on their packaging next year.
"Putting our logo on these products didn't make sense. It was an issue of credibility and, frankly, mixed messaging," said Terry Dean, director of the Health Check program.
But national obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff said Health Check's changes are cosmetic and don't address inherent problems with the program.
"How it took nearly a decade for them to recognize that perhaps cookies and desserts shouldn't have health checks is something that's beyond me,"Freedhoff said. "Health Check is a disservice to Canadians ... and an affront to evidence-based nutrition research."
The issue is timely, considering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans last month to clarify standards for the front of food labels. The move came after heavy criticism of the now-halted U.S. nutrition labelling program called Smart Choices, which gave seals of approval to sugary cereals and high-fat mayonnaise.
Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, said Canada also needs a universal system that applies to all products in grocery stores, not just the ones food manufacturers pay to join.
Food manufacturers pay to join the Health Check program. Fees range from $150 to $700 to evaluate each item, with another annual charge of $1,225 to $3,625 to license each product, to a corporate maximum of $180,000 a year.
The program brings in about $3 million a year, according to Dean.
Health Check's goal is to become the national standard. Freedhoff has no confidence that should happen.
"I've long since given up on hoping that Health Check will make rigorous reform criteria."
According to Freedhoff, some of Health Check's inherent problems include:
* no emphasis on whole grains versus refined grains;
* the number of calories a food has isn't considered;
* food companies pay to be involved, which means all products can't be fairly compared.
"It's a woefully underpowered program that ultimately leads people to be misinformed about their choices ... (It) sometimes steers people away from healthier choices and encourages the consumption of boxed, highly processed foods."
Dean, of Heart Check, acknowledged the voluntary for-fee program means not every product that meets the criteria will be in the program.
"There could be products on the shelf that are actually healthier than Health Check products," he said. "When we set our criteria, we set a benchmark for the industry ... as to what they should be measuring up to when it comes to healthy."
Shoppers can compare the nutrition label on a Health Check product with other products that aren't part of the program, Dean said.
In December 2007, Health Check announced new criteria for grocery store and restaurant foods, giving companies two years to make changes or be disqualified from the program.
Beyond the 63 products in food categories that will be eliminated, Dean said the new regulations also require another 96 products -- including frozen dinners, breads and muffins -- to meet certain trans fat and sugar levels.
Products have until November 2010 to meet new sodium criteria. The changes were based on 2007 revisions to Canada's Food Guide, which recommended people choose foods with less sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
The Health Check program continues to grow in popularity. Its logo is on more than 2,000 products, about 400 more than last year.
Dean said he doesn't know how many companies will be forced to leave because they have until the end of the year to make the required changes.
John Scott, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said that with so many competing health logos inundating consumers, it's clear the food industry needs a universal standard.
"Me, as a consumer, I don't follow the bunny. I don't follow the symbol. I read this," he said, pointing to the nutrition facts label.
So how did junk food ever qualify as a healthy food choice worthy of a Health Check logo?
The initial reasoning was that the Health Check symbol could help people decide on the healthier snack foods.
"People are going to eat cookies, whether we're there or not," Dean explained.