A question for heart foundation tick programmes: is Milo a health food?

The answer might seem a no-brainer for most people, but for the past several months, New Zealanders could have been forgiven for thinking they should answer “yes”.

Controversy erupted in July last year when the chocolate drink gained the endorsement of the NZ Heart Foundation’s Tick Programme.

As happened when the Australian program awarded its tick to some McDonald’s meals, many nutritionists and public health experts were concerned about the message being sent to the public.

Otago University’s Nutrition Professor Murray Skeaff, who also chairs the Heart Foundation’s Food and Nutrition working group, was quoted at the time saying Milo’s tick “was undeserved”.

My organisation wrote to the Heart Foundation to voice its disquiet that a product that was essentially 50 percent sugar would qualify for the tick. We suggested that Milo, along with other questionable tick recipients, such as ice cream, chicken nuggets and pies, devalued the tick brand.

The Heart Foundation replied that Milo was unique in that there was no tick category for Milo powder, but there was a category for Milo as a milk drink.

The letter, from Heart Foundation Tick Programme Manager, Ian Mathieson, went on to say: “The Heart Foundation was legally obligated to approve Milo as a milk drink onto the Tick Programme, as the certification rules state that the Heart Foundation will grant a licence to any applicant whose product meets the guidelines for tick approval”.

My main concern was that Milo was not being reformulated in order to receive the tick. Instead, the recommended serving size was being reduced from 25g to 15g — based on Nestlé’s own research into the “average consumer” — together with a recommendation that it be made with skim milk.

Milo apparently thus qualified as a milk drink under the tick programme criteria.

I am delighted to report that Nestlé recently announced it was withdrawing Milo from the Tick Programme, saying the company “was pursuing a different strategy, and the tick had served its purpose”.

Maurice Gunnell, Nestlé’s Corporate Services Manager, denied it was public pressure that was behind the move to remove Milo from the programme: rather he blamed the economic recession.

In Australia, standard Milo does not have the tick, but a low-sugar version of Milo — Milo B-Smart — has gained approval.

I’m just glad that the NZ tick programme does not have the Foodservice Meals category that would allow foods such as McDonald’s healthy options range to get the tick.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey