When it comes to heart health, there are specific nutrients to encourage (monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber — both soluble and insoluble) and limit (sodium, added sugar, trans fats, oils high in omega-6 fatty acids [corn, cottonseed, soybean], and refined grains).
It has also been well established in the scientific literature that certain phytonutrients — naturally occurring substances in plant foods that confer their own health benefits — offer cardiovascular protection. Some examples include quercetin (in apple skins, red onion, and broccoli), ellagic acid (in strawberries and grapes), and lignans (in flax seed, sesame seeds, and barley).
Alas, most of the products in your local supermarket that feature the American Heart Association’s stamp of approval (officially known as the “heart-check mark”), don’t prioritize heart-healthy nutrients and compounds. In fact, they condone foods high in nutrients that are damaging to our cardiovascular health.
Implemented in 1995, the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark was the first front-of-package labeling scheme. What many people aren’t aware of is that in order to feature the American Heart Association logo on their food products, companies simply need to pay a fee. Sure, there is a set of nutritional criteria products must abide by (which I’ll get to in a minute), but these check marks are certainly not awarded solely by merit.
In a strangely complicated twist (and one that is beneficial to food companies), the American Heart Association offers four different check marks. One for non-meat/non-oat/non-whole grain products, another for meat products, another for oat-based products, and another one for whole grain products.
Here, for example, is what non whole-grain products must list on their Nutrition Facts label, per serving, in order to be eligible to buy a stamp:
- 3g or less fat
- 1g sat fat
- Less than 0.5 g trans fat
- 20 mg or less cholesterol
- 480 mg or less sodium
- 10% or more of the Daily Value of 1 of 6 nutrients: fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium
What a horrible set of criteria. The low grams of fat automatically disqualify loads of heart-healthy foods like nuts and seeds (and their respective oils and butters).
The “less than 0.5 grams trans fat” criteria absolutely blows my mind as well. As I explain in this YouTube video from 2008, the FDA allows products that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to claim “0 grams” on their food label.
This is troublesome because the recommended intake of trans fat is… zilch. Zero. Zip. However, as a result of this labeling loophole, someone could feasibly consume two servings of a food with 0.4 grams (thereby consuming 0.8 grams of trans fat) all the while thinking they haven’t ingested any trans fat.
The only way to double check the credibility of a “0 grams of trans fat per serving” claim is to check for the presence of partially hydrogenated oils on a food label. So, why can’t the American Heart Association make the absence of partially hydrogenated oils from a product’s ingredient list one of their criteria, to fully ensure that the foods they recommend do not include even a smidge of trans fats?
Perhaps most alarming is the absence of two nutrients — sugar and fiber. Non-meat/non-oat/non-whole-grain products are not required to have a minimum amount of dietary fiber in order to get this stamp of approval.
Fiber is merely included as “one of the nutrients you need to have 10% or more of”, and that can be naturally occurring or through fortification. In other words, a food company can add a sprinkle of another nutrient — say, vitamin C — to a product and get away with having 0 grams of fiber in it. Or, as in the case with Thomas’ plain bagel thins, add cellulose fiber (aka wood pulp) to fiberless white flour to create a “high-fiber” food, even though isolated fibers do not provide the same health benefit as whole grains.
How the American Heart Association does not see the need to place limits on added sugar despite the growing amount of evidence showing a link between added sugar intake and heart disease is baffling, to say the least.
Go ahead and take a look at the list of products recommended by the American Heart Association. How many seconds can you last reading through it without furring your brow, exclaiming “Whaaat!?” or shaking your head? There’s so much there that simply does not belong — the slew of cold cuts (no fiber, no heart-healthy fats), the mentions of fruit juice (no fiber, no heart-healthy fats), and the fact that all the recommended products by the Uncle Ben company are for white rice varieties (refined grains like white rice are known to increase triglyceride levels).
Meanwhile, the absence of added sugar guidelines means that Quaker instant oatmeals with added sugars are considered just as heart-healthy as unsweetened kinds, and that flavored soymilks with almost a tablespoon of sugar per 1-cup serving are branded “heart-healthy”. Perhaps the worst added sugar culprit is Bruce’s sweet potatoes in heavy syrup. It packs almost five teaspoons of added sugar (equivalent to a half can of soda) per serving.
Then, there are the strange oddities like the specific mention of Chiquita and Dole bananas. Are bananas not sold by Big Food not heart healthy?
The criteria for whole grain products is also weak. Rather than require that these foods be 100% whole grain, the American Heart Association is perfectly content with products that have just 51% whole grains by weight. And, oddly, the whole grain category is the one with the highest fat allowance (a still-low 6.5 grams per serving).
Essentially, the American Heart Association’s heart-check mark is a tool that favors products with minimal cardiovascular benefits and leaves consumers with a false sense of relief. Or, in 2011 cyber-terms, it’s a #front-of-packageFAIL.