Thursday, August 23, 2012

Health Check vs. Guiding Stars Final Round: Soup and a Summary

Up today? Soups and a summary.

The soup situation is pretty easy to describe. In the entire Loblaws, and this was a gigantic Loblaws, there were only a literal handful of soups that had single Guiding Stars (and ironically only one of those had a Health Check). The rest had zero.

On the other hand, there were dozens of Health Check'ed soups - soups which contained in many cases  the Health Check maximal 480mg of sodium per 250mL serving.....yet virtually everyone serves soup in 500mL bowls.  At 500mL then you'd be having just under 2/3 of your day's Heart and Stroke Foundation recommended sodium allotment with many of these Health Check'ed soups.

To summarize. Health Check doesn't help and I think its nutritional criteria are so weak and the program so poorly executed that rather than help consumers, it hinders healthy choices. You can't compare Health Check'ed items to Health Check'ed items as an item either has a check or it doesn't. You can't compare Health Check'ed items to unchecked items as you need to pay the Heart and Stroke Foundation for the right to market your product with a Health Check but given the myriad of examples I saw where unchecked items had even 3 Guiding Stars, not every product wants to pay for Checks.

Worse still after spending an hour roaming the aisles the other thing that struck me about Health Check - it suggests to consumers that there are shortcuts to health. That cooking, actual cooking, isn't necessary - you could buy health in Health Check'ed cans and boxes.  That's a message amplified by the fact that there were virtually no check marks on actual produce and yet there were Health Checks on what I would honestly describe as candy.

And don't get me started on their restaurant and fast food Health Checks.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation should be championing one of two things - either a useful front of package program (and here my choice would be Nuval where rather than the 4 gradations of Guiding Stars comparisons there are 100) that would actually help inform consumers about the products they're considering, or skipping the boxes and restaurants altogether and sounding a clarion call that as a society we need to rediscover the love and use of our actual kitchens and provide Canadians with resources to help ease them into actual cooking.

[And if you missed it, you can click here for further background.]

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  1. I'm constantly surprised at how difficult it is to get people to consider cooking at home.

    It’s happened twice in the last two weeks that a coworker came to me and said, ‘I’m trying to stop eating so much junk. I see you’re always heating up healthy-looking lunches in the office. Can you give me some recipes?’

    I told them the same thing: Bake a sweet potato for an hour, eat it with some grated (real) cheese and (not sweetened) mustard. Great dinner, no washing, chopping or cooking skill required.

    Both of them said an hour was way too long to wait for dinner. ‘Do you have anything that takes like 15 minutes?’

    I told them to sauté a chicken breast with some mushrooms, pour a chicken broth over it, let it boil off and you’ve got a nice weeknight dinner.

    ‘… Do you know anything that I could just buy?’

    I don’t want to sound condescending. These are both great people, they’ve just grown up in an environment where cooking skills aren’t required. Buying is the default way to get food. Given the food environment of the US and Canada, I’m genuinely curious: How do you get people to trade convenience for nutrition?

    1. Why not just tell them to microwave that same potato for 10 minutes?

  2. Thanks for your recent series on the Health Check program.

    I notice in this article about soups the photo shows the boxes with the designation that the sodium is 25 % less than normal -- this always makes me laugh -- wow, a whole 25%!! Imagine that! Well, 25% of a whole lot is still a whole lot, and you have to read the fine print to find that out. Poor practice, although it is good marketing. Disappointing.

    Also, horribly disappointing that local grocery stores ALL have such a tiny number of products that actually approach any really low levels of sodium. Although I know that Campbell's, for example, actually produces a "no salt" broth, I can never find it in any of my local stores (yes, I go to several -- looking). Does this mean they never have it, or that they have so few they're all sold out?! Then they say "Tell us what products you would like to see and we will stock them" -- well, we are two people, so when I tell them how often we might buy that product they say "Oh, we can't order that few" -- well, I bet if they did, they'd get lots of sales!!!

    At our house, we've given up and we make our own broth/stock WITHOUT salt. We cook all of our own meals at home. Doesn't take longer and the menu planning can be fun and interesting.

    I cannot believe the producers who continue to say that Canadians can't be trusted to "like" food with less salt - wasn't me who asked them to put all of that salt in my food! Besides, when you look at the variety of brands available, the big producers pretty much have a monopoly, so if they produced more no-salt products (or truly "low-salt" ones), people wouldn't have a choice but to buy them, so I suspect their bottom line would not suffer.

    Mary Anne in Ottawa

  3. *Sigh*
    You're totally right. Instead of focusing our energies on finding "healthy" packaged foods, we should be encouraging the use of fresh produce and home cooked meals.

    I just finished reading The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan and it was interesting to see that the constant theme that "we want to be able to cook healthy food using fresh produce" yet there continue to be so many barriers to it. It is astonishing that in the land of plenty, so many people lack access to fresh foods. It was encouraging to read about urban agriculture and hope that the local food movement continues to grow.

    I've heard on the news that there is a major shortage of corn this year, the very corn that is used to make our packaged foods so cheap. I can't help but think that this is a blessing in disguise - if the price of packaged foods goes up, maybe people will be encouraged to pick up fresh fruits and veggies instead?

    One can dream.

  4. Anonymous9:51 am

    To cook people need plans for a whole week (or more), not just single meal recipes.
    To plan 1 meal in isolation (even an easy meal) means planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up and dealing with leftovers. That kind of effort is not time and cost efficient for one meal. If you plan a whole week, especially using sales flyers, the effort becomes worthwhile - one major shopping makes lots of simple meals.

    That used to be called "home economics", and it was ridiculed because it was what women did.

  5. I still say that if you're in Canada and you want a nice canned soup, you should go for the Habitant pea soup. Yeah, it's salty, but at least it's real food, with carbs, protein and fibre. It's filling and feels like a proper meal. And yes, I do make soup from scratch, too.

  6. I work in weight loss and I completed a review of Canada's Health Check program for grocery store items. I also reviewed the criteria a restaurant has to meet in order to get the "Health Check" and it was a total joke. I looked into them in order to assist my clients in making healthier choices both at home and on the road.

    I really encourage my clients to opt for lower sodium products and eat clean, however, I have discovered that reduced sodium on a package, doesn't mean 200 or 300 usually means 600 or 700. Pretty disturbing stuff! The restaurant criteria for health check is beyond ridiculous and doubly shocking.