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AHA to offer "Seal of Approval." (American Heart Association) (column)

AHA to offer "Seal of Approval"

The American Heart Association is initiating a national campaign involving their Seal of Approval. It is designed to aid consumers on their way through the maze of conflicting nutrition and health claims for various foods. The campaign, designated their Heartguide Program, is planned to cover most common edibles, but no policy has been announced for coffee and tea. Approval by the A.H.A. of these beverages would be an immense value in counteracting negative information in periodic soft-boiled research reports based upon limited and uncertain data and eagerness for publicity by the research workers involved.

The program is strictly a commercial enterprise for the A.H.A. For an annual fee, the Seal of Approval, consisting of a red heart enclosing a white check mark, is awarded to branded products that meet certain guidelines, which the Heart Association has not completely disclosed. Government agencies responsible for labeling of food products - the F.D.A. and the Department of Agriculture - oppose the program as being simplistic and possibly misleading to consumers. However, these same agencies have themselves contributed to the confusion by withdrawing from regulatory label action over the past several years.

This program is the latest in a series of health claims that have developed since 1985 when the F.D.A. dropped its opposition to the use of such claims on food labels. Prior to that date, any health claim on a food label caused it to be treated as a medication requiring rigorous and expensive testing for safety and efficacy.

The Heartguide Program identifies products that meet A.H.A. criteria for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and salt, although specific data on these guidelines have not been disclosed. In the first phase the seal is being limited to three categories of food: crackers, canned or frozen vegetables, and shortenings or oils. Companies that pay fees of $5,000 to $640,000 (depending on a product's annual sales) are eligible for the seal. A.H.A. states that proceeds will be spent on product testing and financing nutrition education programs.

The F.D.A. is frowning on the entire program. In a recent letter to the A.H.A., it stated: "The proposed program could easily result in endorsement of products such as some varieties of margarines, spreads and salad dressing that quite simply do not represent the kinds of foods that ought to be promoted to achieve healthy hearts.

Since 1985, when the Kellogg Company was permitted to say that their All Bran Cereal might reduce the risk of cancer, many other companies followed suit with this and various other claims. Last year, the F.D.A. took one company to court over a health claim they said was fraudulent. But the court ruled that the F.D.A. could not selectively enforce a prohibition against health claims.

The F.D.A. has repeatedly voiced objections to the A.H.A. program and more recently sent them a letter stating some products in their program may violate federal labelling laws. The F.D.A. cannot act, however, until these labels are actually on the shelves, now scheduled for the spring or summer of 1990. With the potentially large amount of monies involved, this could become a prolonged legal battle.

Announced A.H.A. approved products include Mazola Corn Oil and Margarine, Promise Spreads, All Natural Cooking Spray, Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Devonshire Melba Toast and Melba Round Crackers and others. The second phase of the program is scheduled to include cereals, cheese, cookies, pasta and salad dressings.

Undoubtedly, if they survive F.D.A. opposition and are successful commercially, the campaign will spread to a broad spectrum of food products will include coffee and tea lead to interesting speculations.

Approval of coffee and tea by a prestigious organization such as the A.H.A. would be of significant benefit to these beverages. It would lift a cloud from the mind and conscience of many consumers who experience a vague, nagging feeling that they should not be enjoying these drinks - based upon years of anti-caffeine propaganda. It would also serve as a neutralizer for future derogatory research reports of questionable validity.

At the present time, regular coffee is such a controversial beverage, that it is highly unlikely that the A.H.A. would agree to permitting its seal to be used on this product. There probably would be much less of a problem with obtaining the seal for decaffeinated brands. It would be a good testing ground for the industry to determine the value of the Seal of Approval. The seal is not released on a generic basis, but only to trademarked brands. These brand promotions would be of unestimable value in initiating a relationship in consumer's minds between coffee (albeit decaffeinated) and health. There would also be a subliminal spillover for regular coffee since many consumers do not recognize specific brands as decaffeinated. Once these products become well accepted and without controversy, the subject of a Seal of Approval for regular coffee could be explored.

Our government is pursuing a policy of more information on labels. In a recent speech at a food policy conference, Dr. Louis Sullivan, Cabinet Secretary of Health and Human Services remarked: "The grocery store has become a Tower of Babel. Consumers need to be linguists, scientists and mind readers to understand the various labels they see. Vital information is missing and some unfounded claims are being made."

He then proposed a new labeling law to be administered by the F.D.A. and to go into effect in 1991. It would require labels with nutritional information on nearly all foods. It would be mandatory to include amounts of saturated fat, fiber, cholesterol and the calories that come from each. Coffee and tea are not yet to be included in label proposals, but data on caffeine content and other components might be required at some future date.

Unfortunately, the comprehensive reforms he proposed (and will surely go into effect) will only add to the public's confusion. Supplying additional information about various types of fats and fibers may be valuable information to graduate nutritionists, but will further perplex most consumers. Even experts do not agree on the value of this information.

A recent report by the nonprofit, non-biased American Council on Science and Health entitled "Facts and Myths of Coronary Heart Disease and its Preventions" concludes: "Diet as a possible cause of coronary heart disease is not based upon sufficient scientific fact and may be causing more harm than good" and also "Dietary intervention by reducing the consumption of dietary cholesterol and/or saturated fat in major clinical trials has shown little effect on serum cholesterol levels and no effect on total mortality."

For coffee and tea, a Seal of Approval by a reputable medical organization would do much to restore confidence in these beverages as it strongly signals no health disadvantages and authoritative approval - without requiring mental strain on the part of the consumer.
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Author:Lee, Samuel
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:column
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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