If you’re not familiar with the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada’s Health Check symbol, it was launched by the not-for-profit organization in 1999 as a tool to help Canadian consumers identify healthier food options in grocery stores. Its use was launched into restaurants more recently in 2005. Food manufacturers have the option to pay into the program (or not). If their food product meets the set criteria, it is granted the right to use the on-package Health Check symbol.
According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation website, “all Health Check grocery products and menu items are evaluated by the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s registered dietitians. To earn the Health Check symbol, every food or menu item in the program must meet nutrient criteria, established by Health Check, based on the recommendations in Canada’s Food Guide.”
The program indicates that grocery & menu items submitted are evaluated based on certain nutrition parameters that include: total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, fibre, sodium, sugar, protein, vitamins and minerals. In fact, the products are “reviewed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s registered dietitians”. This, however, is where things get sticky.
The main critique of the program has been the disconnect between allowable amounts of certain nutrients allowing products or menu items to win the coveted Health Check symbol licensing. The primary nutrient of contention is sodium. Sodium is best known as a component of salt – that delicious little condiment that can make a dish sing or in excess, cause high blood pressure. The recommended amounts of sodium are 1500 mg/day as the adequate intake (AI) and the upper limit (UL) is 2300 mg/day (used as a reference point on nutritional labels).
Interestingly, CBC’s Marketplace debated the merits of the Health Check symbol by highlighting some restaurant meals adorned with the symbol. Examples included shrimp skewers with a whopping 900+ mg of sodium, with some of the worst offenders coming from Boston Pizza. Their lone Health Check option on their pasta menu is pollo pomodoro linguine, where a half order still offers up a breathtaking 820mg of sodium (never mind the 520 calories). When compared with the recommended amounts, you’re looking at half your sodium recommendation for the day in a half order of this meal!
Bottom line: the Health Check symbol may offer a basic indicator to those with little or no nutritional background, but I for one, feel little reassurance that this symbol is doing a sufficient job highlighting healthy food products. The potential is definitely there with it’s broad exposure and credentials behind it, but I feel as though this symbol isn’t portraying healthy options accurately and as a result is doing a disservice to the important work of registered dietitians. Just because you see the symbol doesn’t mean the criteria is as stringent as what’s required by federally-regulated nutritional labels, so be cautious in your food selection and label reading.
-Samantha & Sarah
Health Check update: (July 9, 2014)
On June 18, 2014, the Health Check program published a press release indicating the end of fifteen years of the Health Check program. They indicate the reason for winding it down is in part because of more nutrition labelling programs in grocery stores and in restaurants, but also online and in the media. The press release does not indicate a specific date in which the program will conclude, stating “the logo will start to disappear from grocery products and restaurant menus over the next few months”.
This program started as a valuable concept in 1999 giving consumers nutrition information before nutrition education was popular. However, as Canadians became more nutrition saavy and more information was available to consumers through various modalities, the program lost some of its lustre. Health Check committee members admit to challenges between what should be labeled as healthy compared to other products or compared to what Canadians typically ate in restaurants. It’s certainly a mire of issues to contend with.
What we take issue with is that the nutritional criteria were grey areas for the program and therefore sent ambiguous or incorrect messages to consumers that there is actually a healthy hamburger choice at Harvey’s or that the Slush Puppy made with fruit juice is healthy.
For most nutrition experts, we can see that all foods can fit into a healthy diet and that there’s nothing wrong with the 950mg of sodium in the Harvey’s burger if you don’t chow down on it regularly. We are back to the “halo effect” when consumers see a health check symbol on a menu item or food item in the grocery store. What happens? We automatically see those items as a better, healthier choice for us regardless of the nutritional analysis compared to other choices. We begin to believe this branding as giving us permission to eat these foods.
The bottom line is that we should eat out less often and eat more fruits and veggies. This equals healthy eating. So, thank you Health Check Program for starting the dialogue on nutrition awareness but it appears the time has come to say farewell.