The Heart Foundation tick has been around for 25 years and was implemented to help consumers ascertain what foods and products were healthy choices. However, the Heart Foundation has now decided to discontinue the tick to make way for the new Health Star Rating. The Health Star Rating also rates the nutritional quality of items.
The Heart Foundation says millions of Australians used the tick to help them make healthy food choices every day, but now that the star system “is becoming sufficiently well established, and understood by shoppers… we feel we can now safely begin to retire the tick,” says Mary Barry, the Heart Foundation’s national CEO.
The tick will be removed over the next few years. It has been subject to praise and also to negative press. This article takes a look at both aspects. The first concern was that companies had to pay for their tick – not simply be awarded the tick on good merit.
One of the biggest concerns about the tick was that food manufacturers had to pay a fee for it, says Dr Rosemary Stanton. “I was critical because people had to pay for it, and it was always described as ‘we earned the tick’, as if you were selected,” she says.”The Heart Foundation didn’t just look at the products and say ‘this is a good one and give it a tick’. People had to apply and if their product rated well enough, and they paid the money, then they got the tick.
This therefore means that companies that did not want to apply and pay for the tick would go without on their packaging. This would have excluded some very nutritional products. However, companies could not simply buy a tick without the product first being assessed and meeting criteria – a popular misconception that anyone could purchase a tick for any product.
This meant that products that were as good, if not better, than those with the tick were overlooked by consumers looking for products with the Heart Foundation’s endorsement. The money they paid the Heart Foundation was to cover the costs of having the food assessed, and of running the tick program. “People had the perception, and we had to live with the perception, that the tick could be bought. But it couldn’t be bought because if you didn’t meet the nutrient criteria, you did not qualify for the tick,” she says.
So what can we praise the tick for? The tick almost spearheaded the movement for consumer awareness of the products they were buying and their nutritional content. Food panels are of significant importance now and the products with a tick were the first to get them.
Back in 1989, when the tick was launched, there was no information on packaged foods to help consumers make healthy choices. Foods that passed the nutritional and ingredient standards set by the Heart Foundation didn’t only get to display the tick, these foods were also the first in Australia to display nutrition information panels. “The most important thing that the tick did was that it got people thinking about the healthiness of different types of food and focused attention on food labeling.
Not only this but the tick played a role in decreasing the saturated and trans fat levels in many products as well as the sodium content. It also assisted people in making a better choice within different food categories.
Helping improve the quality of many processed foods in Australia. For example, in 2013, approximately 16 tonnes of salt was removed from the food supply from the reformulation of pasta sauce alone.
Another concern was that a tick could be awarded to the best product in any category. So even if that entire category was quite nutritionally poor, there would still be a tick awarded to the best of that bunch and people could use this as encouragement to consume that item or speak negatively about the Heart Foundation for Awarding a tick to a poorer choice.
The tick worked quite well if you were buying a relatively healthy food, says Professor Lawrence. But more often than not when you’re dealing with processed food, the best food in a category means you’re choosing from the “best of a bad bunch”. This was one of the strongest criticisms that came from dietitians and nutritionists, including Dr Stanton. “We had a tick on the best of the meat pies, and that was giving a health halo to foods we’re basically trying to eat less of. But they got the tick and consumers thought ‘well that means it’s OK'”.
The last thing we need is more encouragement to eat junk food. At least 35 per cent of our food intake comes from discretionary foods, aka junk foods, despite dietary guidelines recommending we limit these.