Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Why Health Check's serving sizes are inexcusable.

Headlines this past weekend read that the FDA is about to crack down on food labels' unrealistic serving sizes.

Serving sizes matter so much because as far as the nutrition facts panels go, the breakdown of contents is described in terms of the reported serving sizes. Unrealistically small serving sizes lead to more favourable sounding breakdowns of calories, sodium etc.

For Big Food - it's not really their fault. They're just getting away with what labeling laws have to date allowed them to get away with. Of course the same cannot be said to be true about the Heart and Stroke Foundation's self-administered Health Check program. Simply put, Health Check's nutritional criteria certainly need not be based or built off of patently unrealistic serving sizes - yet they are.

To illustrate what I'm talking about let's take a look at two of the more popular categories - soups and canned beans.

First up is Campbell's Butternut Squash Gardennay Soup. The Heart and Stroke Foundation happily gives it a Health Check because it has 650mg of sodium per nutrition facts panel serving (close to 1/2 of the Heart and Stroke's total daily maximal sodium recommendation) and soups clearly help pay the bills at Health Check. But what's a serving? The panel says a serving is 250mL. 250mL is a cup. Ask any restaurateur and they'll tell you, cups and bowls aren't the same. Most folks sitting down for soup at home are going to eat a bowl.

The New York Times article linked up above also doesn't think a cup's a reasonable, real-life serving of soup and had this to say,

"Many of the soups are billed as “Heart Healthy” and claim to have a reasonable amount of salt per serving. But a shopper has to examine the label closely to understand that the salt claim refers to half a bowl. A full bowl may contain close to half the daily salt allowance recommended for people with high blood pressure."
That picture up top? That's one of my home bowls with a single "serving" of soup in it. Now my bowls aren't particularly large bowls and certainly that single cup in one of my bowls sure doesn't look very satisfying. No question, when we eat soup in our home (and I imagine in your homes too) it's 2 cups per bowl.

So now back to that Health Check'ed soup - my real life serving would therefore give me 1,300mg of sodium. That's 200mg shy of the Heart and Stroke Foundation's total daily maximum.

Think it's just me, that somehow I've either got gigantic bowls, a huge appetite or simply have it in for Health Check? Let's switch to beans.

This past weekend I read an article in the Ottawa Citizen. It was entitled, "Decoding a can of beans" and it looked at the food label of the Health Check'ed Heinz Chili Style Pinto & Red Kidney Beans. The published serving size on the beans is 1/2 a cup. According to the Citizen,
"The sodium content is very high: if you ate a full cup of these beans, a reasonable quantity, you would consume 840 milligrams of sodium",
leading dietitian Rachelle Charlebois to comment,
"If it wasn't for the sodium, canned beans would be such a healthy alternative to lunch meats"
And these are the beans with the Health Check and that photo up above includes what 1/2 a cup of 'em look like.

Health Check'ed soup and beans for dinner? Even if you eat Heart and Stroke sized portions you'd get 1,070mg of sodium (a huge and shameful to be approved by the Heart and Stroke Foundation amount in and of itself). If you eat real life portions because you a) Want a substantial meal and b) Trust the Heart and Stroke Foundation enough not to weigh and measure your food, they'll hand you a heart stopping 2,140mg of sodium. 30% more sodium than the Heart and Stroke Foundation's own total daily recommended maximum!

Now toss in a glass of tomato juice (480mg sodium per glass of the stuff is ok by Health Check) and you're at 2,620mg of sodium in a single Health Check'ed meal and rapidly closing in on two days worth of maximal Heart and Stroke Foundation sodium.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation has no excuses. Remember with Health Check there's an independent body in charge of setting up shop. Unlike nutrition facts panels which are are mandated from on high, Health Check can set any old levels they want and yet they've chosen to set levels that in the majority of Health Check'ed cases are downright bad for you.

So unbelievably sad, pathetic and shameful to abuse the public's trust that way.

(And don't try to talk to me about Health Check's new so-called stricter criteria - the soup'll drop to 960mg per real life serving, the beans to 720mg while the tomato juice is already "stricter" at 480mg per glass)