Health Check approval misleading consumers, Canadian doctor alleges

Last week, Harvey’s promoted its new Health Check status on grilled veggie, chicken and mini beef burgers, an approval handed to the company from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a well-known national health advocacy group.
The FDA is announcing Thursday that it will require the food industry to gradually phase out trans fats, saying they are a threat to people's health. File photo/Getty Images

TORONTO – The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Health Check” program that approves certain fast food and grocery items recently added several Harvey’s meals to its wide-ranging guide, a decision that irked a Canadian doctor who suggests the program is misleading consumers.

Last week, Harvey’s promoted its new Health Check status on grilled veggie, chicken and mini beef burgers, an approval handed to the company from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, a well-known national health advocacy group.

By Monday, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canadian physician and leading obesity expert, was blogging about the Health Check addition, sharing his skepticism of the program on his Weighty Matters website, while other doctors shared their concern over Twitter, sparking debate with Heart and Stroke officials.

Freedhoff is a University of Ottawa professor and former family medicine chair of the Canadian Obesity Network. Read Freedhoff’s blog post here.

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“The last thing the Heart and Stroke Foundation should be doing is giving permission and, in a sense, encouraging Canadians to choose meals outside of their kitchens,” he told Global News.

But the HSF, for its part, says it’s acknowledging that in today’s fast-paced environment, Canadians are eating out more, and they should have healthy options to turn to.

“We know that Canadians eat out a lot and they should have healthier choices wherever they are so we take a practical approach to meet people where they are,” Katie Jessop, a registered dietician with HSF said.

She notes that one of out every 10 meals Canadians eat comes from a restaurant, and that each day the country makes 18 million visits to restaurants.


Sodium levels sounding alarm bells for expert

The Health Check program was launched in grocery stores in 1999, and in restaurants by 2006. Based on the Canada Food Guide, registered dietitians look at the nutritional content to determine whether or not a product is a healthy choice for Canadians.

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“The Health Check logo helps customers identify healthy food choices on the menu. The program also encourages restaurants to offer healthy choices by meeting the nutrient criteria and these criteria continue to evolve and become stronger,” the Heart and Stroke Foundation told Global News in an email.

Read more about Health Check on its official website here.

The Harvey’s menu items in question come with a side salad combo and raspberry vinaigrette.

Take a look at the nutritional content

Grilled veggie burger and side salad combo
Sodium: 930 milligrams
Total fat: 14 grams
Calories: 470
Serving size: 472 grams

Grilled chicken burger and side salad combo
Sodium: 950 milligrams
Total fat: 7 grams
Calories: 400
Serving size: 472 grams

L’il Original burger and side salad combo
Sodium: 690 milligrams
Total fat: 15 grams
Calories: 380
Serving size: 416 grams

Freedhoff says that a whopping 930 to 950 milligrams of sodium in a single sitting is a lot of salt for a healthy option.

“An item with 41 per cent of your daily value of sodium should not have a check mark that tells you it’s healthy,” he explains.

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“It’s contrary to what the HSF itself is saying, which is aim for 1,500 mg of sodium in a day.”

SOUND OFF: Do you trust “Health Check” approved items while at the grocery store or eating out? Should the Heart and Stroke Foundation award fast food joints “Health Check” approvals or does this mislead consumers? Tell us what you think on Facebook.

His blog also points to other Health Check approved items, such as fast food pizza and grape juice that contains 170 calories per cup and another 40 grams of sugar – which he alleges is 30 per cent more sugar than what’s in Coca-Cola.

Take a look at the Health Check’s vast list of approved foods.

Its Health Check extends to meals from Casey’s, Pizza Hut, Pizza Pizza, Boston Pizza and Swiss Chalet, to name a few.

Comparing burgers to burgers

In Jessop’s notes to Global News, she suggests the items meet Health Check criteria because they’re each a good source of protein, contain at least one serving of vegetables and is served on a multigrain bun.

Take a look at the comprehensive Health Check criteria here.

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The chicken burger is two to five times lower in fat than similar burgers in leading burger chains, and is lower in sodium by 12 to 37 per cent, she says.

“The Health Check items are the healthiest on the menu,” she said in an email to Global News.

But Freedhoff suggest this is what’s misleading consumers.

“We might be able to suggest they’re less horrible or less bad, but to suggest that they’re healthy is completely disingenuous,” he said, accusing the foundation of manipulating Canadians’ trust in its authority.

He said that while some items on the Health Check list may have better nutritional value than its counterparts, they shouldn’t be promoted as healthy options to those who have had a heart attack or are vulnerable to strokes, all groups who turn to the foundation for advice.

Promoting whole foods to Canadians

Freedhoff says that officials should focus their efforts on getting Canadians to cook their own meals so they know what’s on their plates at dinnertime.

“For a health organization to roll over and say, ‘well, they’re doing it anyhow, so we might as well try to provide better options’ is nonsensical,” he said.

Jessop says the HSF’s priority is ensuring Canadians are eating healthy.

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It’s “first message to Canadians is to encourage them to buy fresh food and cook from scratch as often as possible,” she said.

Still, the organization recognizes that Canadians are eating on the go, and it has a responsibility to help them while doing this.

Of all the money spent on food in Canada, 40 per cent is spent in food service outlets, it says.

One in four Canadians eat fast food daily, and 40 per cent of them choose pizza, sandwiches, burgers or hot dogs when they do so.