The “Heart Healthy” scam

Like many scams, this one follows a predictable formula.

It is a formula widely practiced among food manufacturers, ever since food products began to jockey for position based on nutritional composition and purported health benefits.

First, identify a component of food, such as wheat fiber or oat bran, that confers a health benefit. Then, validate the healthy effect in clinical studies. Wheat fiber, for instance, promotes bowel regularity and reduces the likelihood of colon cancer. Oat bran reduces blood cholesterol levels.

Second, commercialize food products that contain the purported healthy ingredient. Wheat bran becomes Shredded Wheat, Fiber One, and Raisin Bran cereals and an endless choice of “healthy” breads. Oat bran becomes Honey Bunches of Oats, Quaker’s Instant Oatmeal, and granola bars. Even if many unhealthy components are added, as long as the original healthy product is included, the manufacturer continues to lay claim to healthy effects.

Third, as long as the original healthy ingredient remains, get an agency like the American Heart Association to provide an endorsement: “American Heart Association Tested and Approved.”

The last step is the easiest: just pay for it, provided the product meets a set of requirements, no matter how lax.

You will find the American Heart Association certification on Quaker Instant Oatmeal Crunch Apples and Cinnamon. Each serving contains 39 grams carbohydrate, 16 grams sugar (approximately 4 teaspoons), and 2.5 grams fat of which 0.5 grams are saturated. Ingredients include sugar, corn syrup, flaked corn, and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Curiously, of the 4 grams of fiber per serving, only 1 gram is the soluble variety, the sort that reduces cholesterol blood levels. (This relatively trivial quantity of soluble fiber is unlikely to impact significantly on cholesterol levels, since a minimum 3 grams of soluble fiber is the quantity required, as demonstrated in a number of clinical studies.) Nonetheless, this sugar product proudly wears the AHA endorsement.

Thus, a simple component of food that provides genuine benefit mushrooms into a cornucopia of new products with added ingredients: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, carageenan, raisins, wheat flour, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, etc. What may have begun as a health benefit can quickly deteriorate into something that is patently unhealthy.

There’s a clever variation on this formula. Rather than developing products that include a healthy component, create products that simply lack an unhealthy ingredient, such as saturated or trans fats or sodium.

Thus, a ¾-cup serving of Cocoa Puffs cereal contains 120 calories, no fiber, 14 grams (3 ½ teaspoons) of sugar—but is low in fat and contains no saturated fat. Proudly displayed on the box front is an American Heart Association stamp of approval. It earned this stamp of approval because Cocoa Puffs was low in saturated, trans, and total fat and sodium. Likewise, Cookie Crisp cereal, featuring Chip the Wolf, a cartoon wolf in a red sweater (“The great taste of chocolate chip cookies and milk!”), has 160 calories, 26 grams carbohydrate and 19 grams (4½ teaspoons) of sugar per cup, and 0 grams fiber—but only 1.0 gram fat, none saturated, thus the AHA check mark. (Promise margarine, made with hydrogenated vegetable oil and therefore containing significant quantities of trans fats, was originally on the list, as well, but removed when the trans fat threshold was added to the AHA criteria.)

It is this phenomenon, the sleight of hand of taking a healthy component and tacking on a list of ingredients manageable only by food scientists, or asserting that a product is healthy just because it lacks a specific undesirable ingredient, that is a major factor in the extraordinary and unprecedented boom in obesity in the U.S. Imagine the chemical industry were permitted such latitude: “Our pesticide is deemed safe by the USDA because it contains no PCBs.” Such is the ill-conceived logic of the AHA Heart-Check program the "Heart Healthy" claims.

It’s best we keep in mind the observations of New York University nutritionist and author of the book, Food Politics, Marion Nestle, that “food companies—just like companies that sell cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, or any other commodity—routinely place the needs of stock holders over considerations of public health. Food companies will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health. In this regard, food companies hardly differ from cigarette companies. They lobby Congress to eliminate regulations perceived as unfavorable; they press federal regulatory agencies not to enforce such regulations; and when they don’t like regulatory decisions, they file lawsuits. Like cigarette companies, food companies co-opt food and nutrition experts by supporting professional organizations and research, and they expand sales by marketing directly to children, members of minority groups, and people in develop countries—whether or not the products are likely to improve people’s diets.”

Qualms over just how heart-healthy their products are? Doubtful.

Comments (1) -

  • jimray

    7/28/2008 3:26:00 PM |

    I want to print this out and post it on the wall of my office.  You have made clear what I have been trying to articulate for years. The labels do not always tell the truth. And ultimately it goes back to money. Thank you.