There are expert concerns the logo stamped on foods approved by the Heart Foundation has been co-opted by the food industry, to boost sales.
The heart tick logo could be driving up the price of some healthy foods on store shelves, says nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, creating confusion and the impression a nutritious choice was out of reach for many in the community.
“The cost of food is a particular concern for people on low incomes who have a higher incidence of diet-related health problems,” said Dr Stanton, who is Visiting Fellow at the School of Medical Sciences at the University of NSW.
“Processed foods that bear the tick almost invariably have a higher price, while cheaper products in many food categories may have a nutritional profile at least as good as those with the tick – sometimes better.”
Dr Stanton points to a brand of rolled oats featuring the heart tick which she said was almost five times the price of house-brand oats.
She said food companies “gain credibility by linking their brand to the positive emotions attached to the Heart Foundation”.
They pay to put the tick on their products which meet targets for salt and fat, and this cost is then passed on to consumers.
Fast food companies had also tweaked some of their menu offerings to gain use of the tick in their marketing but this had little impact on the decisions people made at the counter.
“The healthier option lures extra customers, but the bottom line is an increase in sales of regular burgers and fries,” Dr Stanton said.
Most people “need to eat less of almost everything except fruit and vegetables”, she said.
“It is not a message that pleases the processed or fast food industries, but that is their problem.
“It is not the role of the health organisations such as the Heart Foundation to keep these companies profitable.”
There were also inconsistencies in the tick’s nutrition standards, she said, as while it set targets salt and fat it ignored the issue of added sugar.
Of 44 cereals awarded the tick this year, Dr Stanton said many contained about 30 per cent sugar, while there were wholegrain cereals that contained “little or no added sugar” and had not applied to use the tick.
Dr Stanton said doctors should “exercise caution” on recommending heart-tick foods to their patients, and focus instead on promoting a change in attitude.
Her comments were contained in an “Opposing Views” paper published online on Monday by the Medical Journal of Australia.
The paper also carried a defence of the heart tick, saying it was a “cost-effective, population-based approach to improving the health of Australians by challenging food manufacturers and food outlets to improve the nutrition of their products”.
It also provided a mechanism for ongoing improvement – as seen in the “incrementally tougher” limit for salt (dropping from 450mg to 400mg per 100g) applied to heart-tick bread.
“The Heart Foundation Tick program has resulted in increased awareness of healthier eating and a significant reduction in saturated fats, trans fats and salt in many foods,” said Professor James Tatoulis, Chief Medical Advisor to the National Heart Foundation of Australia.
“It is also transforming the practices of food companies.”