The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s so-called Health Check program

Today’s post is brought to you by a guest, Yoni Freedhoff, of the blog Weighty Matters. Yoni is a family doctor and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute – a multi-disciplinary, ethical, evidence-based nutrition and weight management centre.

Front-of-package food labelling. In theory it’s there to help you make healthier choices in the supermarket without having to spend the time actually reading (let alone understanding) food labels. In practice, it’s there to sell food, and in the case of Health Check, it’s there to increase visibility for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and to raise money for them.

The ideal front-of-package labelling program would provide a score, where that score would easily alert shoppers to the nutritional merits of the product. The ideal program would also recognize that there are dozens of different dietary determinants of health and would also recognize that each different dietary determinant of health would have a different impact on chronic disease prevention, would have differing degrees of scientific certainty, and would be therefore be weighted to reflect those facts. The ideal program would score every item in a store so as to ensure that shoppers don’t accidentally pass by more nutritious choices simply because the program failed to evaluate them. The ideal program would also validate their scoring system by means of peer-reviewed, well designed analyses of dietary patterns and chronic disease development.

Low fat, but how much salt is in there? 420 mg (18% daily intake) in half a cup. Check!

The Heart and Stroke’s Health Check program is far from ideal.

Rather than a score, the program awards check marks. Either a product has one, or it doesn’t. If we use a hypothetical score of 100 as a fabulous choice, shopping with Health Check you’d be just as likely to pick up a 51 as you would a 100.

The program is woefully underpowered, scoring an average of only 3 and a maximum of 8 nutritional criteria per item. What that of course means is that so long as a food manufacturer stacks its deck on just 3 items it doesn’t matter what else they throw in there, the product will still qualify for a Health Check.

There’s no weighting even among their existing criteria and so to Health Check, it would be just as important for a product to have a low level of saturated fat (this despite the fact that the notion of saturated fat being a horrible evil has been fairly convincingly debunked), as it would to include a few grams of fibre. Furthermore, to Health Check, different foods somehow afford themselves different nonsensical and seemingly random criteria whereby it’s perfectly acceptable to Health Check to allow a glass of tomato juice to have 480mg or 1/3 of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s recommended maximal sodium intake, while a serving of tofu is only allowed to have 140mg.

Health Check doesn’t score every item in the supermarket. Health Check only scores those items whose parent companies paid for their evaluation. Consequently it’s not at all uncommon to find a Health Check’ed item sitting alongside an unscored, yet nutritionally superior item.

Lastly, as far as peer-reviewed research goes, the only peer-reviewed research (pdf) on Health Check that’s been published has been research on how consumers perceive Health Check and unfortunately for the consumer, the research revealed that the logo is implicitly trusted with 96% of those surveyed believing it was steering them to a healthier choice.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check program has been misinforming Canadians since 1999. It’s non-scientific and underpowered nature, when combined with the Foundation’s knowledge of consumers’ implicit trust and the program’s practice of only evaluating paying products, is unforgivable for an organization that claims to care about the health of Canadians. It’s a national embarrassment.

My best advice to you when considering Health Check products is caveat emptor as it seems pretty clear that Health Check isn’t there to help you look out for your best interests, it’s there to help the Heart and Stroke Foundation look out for theirs.

So what can you do when you’re in the supermarket? Consider this. If a product needs to convince you it’s healthy, it’s probably not. When was the last time you saw a front-of-package claim on broccoli?

For more information on the many shortcomings of the Health Check program, please feel free to visit my blog where I’ve been documenting some of their more egregious missteps for years. For an example of an ideal front-of-package labelling program, have a gander at David Katz’ Nuval.

2 Responses to “The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s so-called Health Check program”

  1. Skeptikor says:

    “If a product needs to convince you it’s healthy, it’s probably not.”

    Michael Pollan, in his excellent book “In Defense of Food” makes a similar observation: “If your concerned about your helth, you should probably avoid products that make health claims.”

    I don’t think you can beat his three rules for intelligent eating:
    1. Eat food. (by which he means unprocessed and grown with little or no chemical inputs)
    2. Not too much.
    3 Mostly plants.

    Not exciting, and no diet pundit or scientist is going to get rich or famous as a result. Good advice nevertheless.


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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.