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When a 'healthy' Tick shouldn't be a tick

By Rosemary Stanton - posted Friday, 22 February 2008


I believe the National Heart Foundation (NHF) does an excellent job alerting the community to risk factors for cardiovascular disease and providing information on many aspects of healthy living.

Some years ago, the NHF launched their Tick program for foods, setting criteria for the content of fat and saturated fat and adding criteria for salt, sugar, trans fat, kilojoules and (where appropriate) dietary fibre or protein. Foods sold as a meal must also contain a 75g serving of vegetables and there are some other criteria, such as canned seafood must contain at least 50 per cent seafood. If a food meets the NHF criteria and the company marketing it is prepared to pay a royalty fee, the food can carry the NHF Tick on its label and advertising. The NHF Tick now appears on selected products at McDonalds and a pizza chain.

On the positive side, the Tick makes shopping easier. Faced with over 30,000 products in the average supermarket, no one can read every label. For those in a hurry when buying processed foods, the sight of the familiar Tick can save the bother of reading the label.

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The Tick has also forced many companies to reformulate their products to comply with the NHF guidelines.

On the minus side, you pay for the privilege of not having to read the label because products that carry the Tick generally cost more than similar products. Nor do you necessarily get the best deal. A recent check of baked beans revealed a cheaper brand with less salt and fat and just as much fibre as the can bearing the Tick.

Canned fish, cheese, milk, yoghurt and nuts with the Tick may also have no differences from their counterparts without the Tick, apart from a higher price. And for a single ingredient product, such as rolled oats, it is totally incomprehensible to me why anyone would pay four times the price for a product with the Tick.

The Tick program is available for fresh foods but those without labels have little to gain from it and no padding from cheap additives to pay for it. By promoting so many processed foods, the Tick gives these products credibility when we should be pushing fresh products.

My real "beef" with the Tick program is that it sets different standards for different foods. These are kept secret, but a meat pie with the Tick is permitted much more salt and fat than would be allowed for canned baked beans or bread or many other products. This often means the Tick appears on foods that are the best of a bad lot, giving them credibility.

If the aim is to reduce salt intake, promoting a pie or a pizza with a high sodium content is not the way to go, even if the product has less salt than others in its category.

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There have also been cases of foods bearing the Tick when they are far from good choices. Some margarine spreads with the Tick used to have high levels of trans fats. At the time, the NHF did not have any criteria for trans fats, although evidence of their harmful effects had been available for over 10 years. To be fair to the NHF, when I alerted them to the problem, they withdrew permission for the Tick and set criteria for trans fat. But why hadn't this occurred before granting the Tick licence?

For companies, the Tick is a marketing exercise. Once McDonalds introduced some healthier products and paid $330,000 per year for them to carry the Tick, the resulting publicity increased patronage. A small number of people bought the Tick meals, but sales of regular burgers and fries increased. The Tick payment was money well spent for the company, but of doubtful benefit for the nation's health.

For the public, the NHF claim that their own testing shows that people understand that they still need to limit their consumption of foods with the Tick. Their testing may well show this - the results of such tests depend on the questions asked. My own experience, especially with older people, is that they think foods such as margarine spreads with the tick are fine to use and so use them for cakes, biscuits, in mashed potato and even for frying. The Tick gives them no incentive to cut back on what is essentially fat.

The NHF argues that Australians are eating so many fast foods and highly processed items that any slight improvement in the composition of a few is a good thing. An even better approach would be to help Australians discover the amazingly good fresh foods available so they can decrease their overall consumption, especially of processed foods.

With their excellent anti-smoking campaigns, the NHF did not appeal to the industry to make slightly safer cigarettes. They pushed people to give up smoking. It's a pity they don't take a similar attitude to poor food choices.

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About the Author

Rosemary Stanton AO is a nutritionist with a science degree in biochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry, post-graduate qualifications in nutrition and dietetics, a graduate diploma in administration and a PhD for her work in public health.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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