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`Heart-Healthy' Food Claims Challenged.

Stroll down any supermarket aisle, and you're likely to see dozens of different health claims on food packages. Next to some of these claims sits the heart-check symbol, the American Heart Association (AHA) "seal of approval." The symbol signifies that the AHA deems the food "heart-healthy" when eaten as part of a balanced diet.

But if you were to select only foods with the heart-check symbol, would you end up with a more heart-healthy diet than if you ignored the symbol? Not necessarily, according to nutrition experts. Although the AHA symbol--and most other heart-related food claims--can be useful, choosing foods based on these claims is only one step on the path to a heart-healthy diet.

How AHA Certification Works

The AHA began its Food Certification Program in 1995 to help consumers make better food choices among the ever-widening array of options. Any food that the AHA approves must first comply with the existing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements for making a heart-related health claim.

For most foods, that means they must contain no more than 3 grams of total fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 20 milligrams (mg.) of cholesterol, and 480 mg. of sodium per serving. The food must also contain at least 10 per cent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of one or more of the following nutrients: protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, or dietary fiber.

Not all foods that comply with these standards, however, have the AHA symbol. Some manufacturers do not go through the AHA certification process, which involves committee review and payment of an initial fee of $7,500 per food and an annual renewal fee of several thousand dollars.

More than 700 foods have undergone the certification process and carry the AHA symbol. According to the AHA, market research has shown that the heart-check symbol helps sell food. This may be why manufacturers go through the Alta process, but any food that complies with the FDA guidelines can make a claim of being heart-healthy without going through AHA certification. As a result, the symbol does not mean that a food is any more healthful than one that makes a legitimate health claim without the symbol.

A major category of food that most often lacks the AHA symbol is canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. For packaging reasons, these products sometimes contain larger amounts of salt (sodium chloride) than AHA limits allow. For people not on a salt-restricted diet, these foods are not necessarily harmful. Moreover, many contain enough healthful nutrients that the FDA now allows them to carry health claims as long as they contain no more than 480 mg. of sodium per serving.

Another limitation of all heart-related food claims, including the AHA heart check, is that they apply only to healthy people. The foods do not necessarily fit into the special dietary restrictions often recommended for people with heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, or other health conditions.

The biggest potential drawback to health claims on foods is that they focus attention on individual food components, which may cause people to lose sight of the big picture. Focusing on food components often leads to overeating, notes George Blackburn, M.D., director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition and Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Simply limiting portion sizes and calories would keep many people from consuming too much salt and fat, says Dr. Blackburn. He recommends focusing on calories first, then paying attention to specific food components such as fat.

(From Heart Watch, March/April 2000. Adapted with permission of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Boston, [C] 2000. All rights reserved.)
COPYRIGHT 2001 Vegetus Publications
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:American Heart Association food labels
Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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