The Heart Foundation is getting its undies in a twist about Coles using a tick in its branding. But consumers might be healthier if they let the Coles tick guide their purchases.

Heart Foundation healthy weight director Susan Anderson complains “we receive many calls and emails from outraged shoppers who have been tricked by phony ticks”. And Senator Nick Xenophon wants to call in the Feds, saying: “Coles is being deceptive and the ACCC should investigate.”

Incidentally, Xenophon isn’t worried about the consumer accidentally choosing an unhealthy food. He explains his real concern is that consumers will think the product is Heart Foundation approved and “that is fundamentally unfair to the Heart Foundation.”  Oh, OK, good point. We wouldn’t want to endanger their licensing revenue.

A major study released in April showed definitively that when it comes to heart disease (presumably the primary concern of the Heart Foundation), sugar consumption was by far the strongest indicator of risk. So how do the products that bear the Heart Foundation tick stack up in the sugar stakes?

Nestle’s Fruit Fix Bars proudly bear the Heart Foundation tick but are about 72% sugar. However, a tick-free Mars Bar is only 58% sugar. I guess they’d need to top it up a bit to earn a tick?

Other high sugar products proudly bearing the tick include Nestle’s Billabong Ice Blocks (23% sugar), Nestle’s B-Smart Milo (32% sugar), Kellogg’s K-Time Twist Bars (38% sugar), and Nestle’s Nesquik Plus (60% sugar). It looks like letting the Heart Foundation tick guide you through supermarket isles could land you in very high sugar territory indeed.

But what of the claim that Coles is leading healthy food seekers astray with their tick? Most of us  eat breakfast cereals, so the brekkie aisle is a good place to do some comparison shopping.

Coles makes a few breakfast cereals emblazoned with its ticks. They are Rolled Oats (no sugar), Wheat Biscuits (less than 1% sugar) and Corn Flakes (10% sugar). Nothing too dreadful there (even if the corn flakes could have less sugar).

But the Heart Foundation-endorsed list of breakfast cereals includes Australia’s 10th most sugary cereal (Kellogg’s Just Right — 32% sugar) and the 12th most sugary (Nestle’s Healthwise for Heart Health — 30% sugar). Following the Heart Foundation down the cereal aisle could fill your breakfast bowl with at least three times as much sugar as opting for the Coles tick.

The good news is that if you are prone to ticklexia, you’re in much safer territory from a sugar (and therefore heart health) perspective. Although you probably want to be a little bit careful. Coles have ticks on shaving cream and laundry powder too.

Even when you venture out of the supermarket, the Heart Foundation can be treated as fairly consistent warning of high sugar content. Over at the much-maligned Maccas, the tick-approved meals are some of the higher sugar options on (the non-pudding part of) the menu.

A tick-approved Seared Chicken Sweet Chili Wrap, Garden Salad and Italian Dressing will serve you up four whole teaspoons of sugar (quite a bit for a salad, really). But a plain old Big Mac will add “just” 1.5 teaspoons of sugar to your day. And a Filet-o-Fish, piles on a mere half teaspoon.

The Heart Foundation happily endorses high sugar products because unlike its US counterpart (and in the face of overwhelming science), it considers sugar a harmless (even necessary) addition to our diet. In response to one of my earlier rants, Anderson even told Cardiology Update “Although associated with tooth decay …  eating sugar itself is not clearly associated with other health problems.”

I had always believed (like most of us, I suspect) that the Australian Heart Foundation was a powerful force for good in ensuring we all ate well. We trust the Heart Foundation to tell us the truth, not what is commercially convenient for its clients.

We wouldn’t tolerate our doctor taking payment from sugar manufacturers in return for recommendations. So why should we tolerate it from the Heart Foundation. Whacking a tick on a sugar-loaded children’s food product is at best a conflict of interest and at worst, negligent.

So, please Heart Foundation, let’s have less media hype about Coles (using a logo vaguely reminiscent of the tick) and a lot more media hype about the lethal effects of sugar. I know that will hurt your income stream but is that really what’s important here?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey