Thursday, August 26, 2010

Health Check's rotten tomato

Further to yesterday's post on the Heart and Stroke Foundation announcement that they finally figured out that chocolate milk and french fries aren't healthy choices comes an across the Health Check board reduction in their program's allowable levels of sodium.

Truly, the reductions are significant with some criteria and product categories now actually representing sodium levels that would in fact be considered low.

But not tomato juice.

According to these newer, more stringent criteria, tomato juice (and all vegetable juices and all soups), are still allowed to contain 480mg of sodium per serving.

480mg is in fact still quite a lot. One glass of Heart and Stroke Foundation endorsed tomato juice will now provide you with 32% of their own recommended daily maximum of 1,500mg and as any dietitian (and the Heart and Stroke Foundation themselves) will tell you, you should try to aim for foods that contain no more than 10% of your total daily recommended maximums.

Now one might argue that you can't expect people to tolerate a rapid reduction in sodium and so it's being reduced in a stepwise fashion with this reduction representing a 26% decrease in sodium from the prior Health Check allowance of 650mg. Only problem with that argument is that there are many categories in this most recent revision, where Health Check has reduced their sodium allowances by 50% and some where they've reduced it by 70%.

So what is so magical about tomato juice?

Looking at Medline records since 1950 there have been a grand total of 216 articles that included "tomato juice" as a keyword.

Looking at all of their abstracts, there were 3 that were worth noting:

The first, out of Finland, detailed a very small, very short study that looked at a 3 week low tomato product diet vs. a 3 week high tomato product diet on the LDL concentrations of 21 healthy individuals. The high tomato folks were given 400mL of tomato juice and 2 tablespoons of ketchup daily so results certainly can't be isolated to the juice. This short, small study found a decrease in LDL concentration in the high tomato diet of 12%.

The second, out of Connecticut, was a rat study whereby rats were force fed tomato juice for 3 weeks and then had their hearts extracted from their bodies and subjected to 30 minutes of no blood flow followed by 2 hours of restoration of blood flow. Those rats who had been force fed tomato juice's hearts had smaller areas of infarction than those who hadn't.

The third, out of Harvard, examined the intake of lycopenes and tomato based foods, including juice, and the risk of cardiovascular disease in 39,876 middle aged women over a 7.2 year period. Of all of the tomato based products examined, only tomato sauce and pizza were seen to have potential cardiovascular disease lowering effects.

Those sure don't sound like good reasons to continue to explicitly encourage Canadians to consume 32% of their total recommended daily sodium intake from one glass of the stuff.

Similarly there's soups where again, Health Check allows for 480mg per serving where a serving is in fact a single cup (despite the fact that in the real world people drink bowls (2 cups)).

So what's so special about soups and vegetable juices that they are allowed to contain 25% more sodium than each and every one of the 58 other single product categories in the Health Check universe?

The cynic in me says that what's so special about them is that among the denizens of the Health Check brand there is perhaps no company that has more products with Health Checks than the Campbell Soup Company who also happen to own V8. Therefore unlike some of Health Check's other corporate partners, a major change to soup and vegetable juice criteria would be decidedly bad for business and corporate relations for Health Check.

What do the folks from Health Check have to say about it?

Well once upon a time Terry Dean, the General Manager of Health Check was paraphrased by the Toronto Star as stating that,

"while some Health Check products may have a sugar or sodium content that is higher than optimal, the product must have redeeming nutritional value, such as calcium or fibre"
He himself stated further,
"In every case, there are two or three nutrients it has to have"
Ahhhhh, magic nutrients.

So Terry please tell me, what redeeming, magic, "two or three nutrients", does tomato juice and soup have that make them worthy of 32% of your total daily sodium allotment and a criteria limit 25% higher than virtually everything else you Check?

[Thanks to Twitter's @girldownthelane for the new and improved headline]