15/12/2015 5:37 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Heart Health: The Tick Gets The Flick But Now We're Seeing Stars

Ticks and Stars are perceived as "rewards" and people interpret them as being "healthy". Why not just get rid of this system altogether? It detracts from the real message, which is that people should be eating whole, fresh, unprocessed foods.

The Heart Foundation

Last week the Heart Foundation of Australia finally decided to scrap its controversial Heart Tick Program.

It began 26 years ago and the Tick gradually became one of the most recognised logos on food products. It was supposed to help us make healthier food choices. So -- fresh fruit, vegetables and non-processed foods, right?


It gave a tick to products like Honey Cheerios, Nestle Milo and other sugary cereals containing up to 30 percent sugar. In 2013, when I produced a program called Toxic Sugar?, obesity researcher Prof Michael Cowley from Monash University said: "I don't understand how they've said that's a healthy food."

Many parents were probably wondering the same thing.

Several years ago, the Heart Foundation decided to endorse a range of McDonald's fast food meals like Chicken (and I use the term loosely) McNuggets with Sweet & Sour Sauce. The public was outraged. Understandably.

The Tick was used in advertising campaigns to lure people into the fast food outlet. And it's unlikely that people would always choose meals with the Tick logo when there's french fries and fudge sundays on offer.

A public campaign was launched to scrap the program, backed by celebs like Sarah Wilson, Pete Evans and David Gillespie. The Heart Foundation's credibility and its impartiality were questioned after it was widely reported to have earned around $2.5 million from its Tick endorsements.

Last year, the Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation gave its tick the flick. The director of the Heart Check program conceded it was "outdated" and that public criticism played a role in the decision to kill the program.

For the most part, it does a good job. I'm sure the Tick Program started out with good people having good intentions but they've been in willful denial for far too long. When industry pays millions to earn a tick, the program becomes riddled with serious conflicts of interest and there is a loss of public trust.

Its endorsement of low-fat products dramatically influenced the sugar content in processed foods. Unfortunately, the myopic focus on trying to reduce fat was at the expense of people's sugar intake. I believe their advice to substitute fat with sugar has been a monumental failure and contributed towards the diabetes and obesity crisis.

Recently, the WHO called on countries to reduce sugar intake among adults and children, claiming they had solid evidence to suggest it would reduce the risk of obesity and tooth decay.

So, has the Heart Foundation modernised its approach to nutrition? Well, they've helped develop the government's new Health Star Rating System, which is thought to replace the Tick Program.

It was initially launched in 2014 and its second phase rolled out earlier this year. It's promoted as a solution to reduce our ever-expanding waistlines. Stars are awarded to packaged foods after the balance of "good and bad" nutrients has been assessed. The system has a calculator that works this out.

Foods lower in saturated fat, sugar, salt and energy are given higher ratings than foods in a similar category. Put simply, the more stars, the healthier the choice (apparently).

But wait! They give "Up & Go" a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5? It's processed, packaged, sweet liquid cereal in a cardboard box. And many shoppers would be astonished to find a bag of soft liquorice candy rated 2.5 stars when Natural Greek yoghurt is only 1.5 stars. Presumably, its because the yoghurt contains saturated fat.

Despite the abundance of evidence disproving the link between saturated fat and heart disease, the system rewards foods that are low in saturated fat.

I think their calculator needs a bit of fine-tuning.

Despite the controversy over the Health Star Rating, health authorities say the real value is that it helps consumers make healthier choices by comparing products within a food category.

We have to do better than this. The Health Star Rating system is designed around processed foods. Health authorities need to regain credibility by directing people to the fresh food aisle. They say they promote fresh food but, in the same breath, they're giving endorsements to highly processed, fake food in cardboard boxes. It seems a bit disingenuous to me.

"What the health star rating system ends up doing is encouraging marketing of unhealthy or discretionary foods, as healthy options," writes Prof Mark Lawrence of Deakin University.

I agree. Ticks and Stars are perceived as "rewards" and people interpret them as being "healthy". Why not just get rid of this system altogether? It detracts from the real message, which is that people should be eating whole, fresh, unprocessed foods.

A petition has already started against the Health Star Rating program.

Didn't Einstein say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?