Heart Of The Matter

The American Heart Association’s seal-of-approval program for processed foods should be strongly opposed by the produce industry. The basic idea of this program is that processed food products deemed worthy by the AHA by virtue of meeting standards for total and saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, will get to wear a special “HeartGuide” symbol and to be part of an American Heart Association-sponsored advertising and marketing campaign.

Now the goal of pushing healthy foods is a laudable one. And as we know that diet makes a significant contribution to people’s health and well-being, it makes perfect sense for the Heart Association to point out the benefits of eating healthy and to exert its efforts in teaching people how to identify good things to eat.

And indeed, the AHA would not be the first association to put its logo on specific products. Many of us make a habit of looking for the American Dental Association logo on toothpaste, knowing that this means the ADA has investigated the formula and found that it contains the necessary fluoride. But the Heart Association’s subject differs in a significant way from toothpaste, and from a public health standpoint, it makes this program a particularly bad idea.

Toothpaste either has fluoride or does not and as a practical matter, it is impossible to use too much toothpaste. Brushing your teeth 30 times a day will have no deleterious effect on your health. But food is different. The first problem is that foods really are not good or bad in and of themselves. What all medical professionals and dieticians counsel is moderation. The richest cake or most well-marbled steak is not harmful to human beings if consumed as part of a well-balanced diet. Equally, even an item low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium can be harmful if consumed to excess. One can only imagine how many people will rationalize overeating by pointing to the “HeartGuide” symbol on the package they are consuming: “The Heart Association says it’s good for you, no?”

The first categories of foods the HeartGuide seal will be open to be as follows: margarines/spreads, shortening/oils, frozen dinners, canned/frozen vegetables, and crackers. It is anticipated that more categories of food might be covered by this program in the future. The interest of the produce industry is direct and two-fold. First, the produce industry and many reputable health organizations such as the American Cancer Society have worked hard to explain to the public the benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Now, the American Heart Association, in an action that can only result in confusion of the general public, has decided to put a HeartGuide symbol on shortenings? Oils? Frozen dinners? Surely this action will create confusion among consumers as to what exactly is recommended as healthy to eat and what type of products health professionals suggest increasing the consumption of.

The second interest of the produce industry relates to the inclusion of canned/frozen vegetables under this symbol. If this AHA HeartGuide symbol ever becomes respected by consumers, it could put the produce industry in a difficult position. All of the sudden, the AHA HeartGuide would begin appearing on canned and frozen produce, but the symbol would not appear on fresh items. What conclusion might customers draw? That canned asparagus is healthier than fresh? That the heart needs more frozen corn rather than fresh? In allowing consumers to draw this type of conclusion, the Heart Association is violating its charter, doing a great disservice to the public’s health and potentially harming the people who sell fresh produce and other healthy products.

As this program is so manifestly ill-advised, and it is inconceivable the Heart Association would have adopted it on its merits, one can be certain that there is an ulterior motive lurking around which explains the Heart Association’s promotion of this program. And, in fact, we don’t need to look far to find it. The motivation is money. You see, every company interested in having the HeartGuide seal on its products will pay a non-refundable $40,000 per brand administrative fee and an “educational fee” ranging from $5,000 to $1,000,000 per brand, depending on market share.

Suddenly, it all seems clear. In different food categories, the AHA could pick up a few hundred purveyors of processed products anxious to have the Heart Association certify them as “healthy” – the Heart Association might pick up many millions of dollars in fees. This money could increase the relative importance of the Heart Association compared to other non-profit associations. It might mean a bigger budget and bureaucracy for the AHA, perhaps even higher salaries for the top AHA honchos.

Fundamentally, this is a case of a non-profit association which is supposed to be fighting heart disease selling out the public for a few bucks. The FDA has made no secret of the fact that they don’t like this program, and the produce industry has a lot to lose from it. As such, United and PMA should be taking a lead position opposing this program. First of all, they should direct industry protest directly to the leaders of the AHA. Second, the industry should investigate the possibility of attacking the tax exempt status of the Heart Association. After all, with this program, the American Heart Association has betrayed the public’s trust. It has indicated that to make a few bucks, it is willing to let the public health be damned. It has abandoned any educational or scientific pretense and become merely a shortsighted business selling what’s left of its good name to the peddlers who can pay the price. We have a right to expect more from our non-profit health associations.