‘Heart Healthy’: Is It Hype or Helpful?

Many products have big labels proclaiming they are ‘heart healthy’ — but are they?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

“Heart Healthy” — you’ve seen it on products from breakfast cereal to snack foods.

Many products proclaim this status with a bright, red heart on the package to drive the message home.

But is that claim accurate or just clever marketing to push consumers to buy certain brands?

“Make sure you read the label for what it is,” said physician Anne B. Curtis, chairwoman of medicine at University at Buffalo and president of UBMD Internal Medicine. “They’ll be things like cookies that say ‘fat free’ or ‘low fat’ and you assume it’s better for you. But they put in a lot more sugar. It’s no more healthier for you. ‘Heart healthy’ on labels isn’t regulated.”

Instead of relying upon messages on the front of the label, Lucy Connery, health promotion specialist at Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo who is completing a Master in Public Health  degree at Daemen College, wants people to look at the back of the package.

“A lot of it comes down to knowing the nutritional facts,” Connery said. “It’s about balance and moderation.”

Food manufacturers and processors can’t legally make wild claims about the benefits of their foods. Mary Jo Parker, registered dietitian with Nutrition and Counseling Services in Buffalo, said that a few approved health claims are allowed on food labels, such as the health claim for saturated fat and cholesterol and the risk of coronary heart disease and the one for soluble fiber from fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

“Studies have shown that people who have a diet higher in soluble fiber from those sources have a lower risk of coronary heart disease,” Parker said.

She added that any claims made on packages must be backed up the nutrition facts panel, for example, something that’s “low in saturated fat” must contain 1 gram or less. Or if it’s “reduced fat” it must contain at least 25% less fat than the regular version. Anything labeled “saturated fat free” must contain less than half a gram of saturated fat; however, all of these types of claims doesn’t mean it’s a healthful food.

“What you do see is substitutes like palm or coconut or palm kernel oil for hydrogenated fats,” Parker said. “Technically it’s a step above trans fats, but in terms of heart healthier, not necessarily. The tropical oil is highly saturated. Coconut oil is more saturated than lard.”

She warns patients to not fall into the trap of thinking “natural” or other vague terms mean that it’s healthful. Although some ingredient upgrades may offer improvements, “it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a heart healthy product,” Parker said.

“Saying something is ‘natural’ or ‘uses pure ingredients’ are murky claims,” Parker added.

Danielle Meyer, a registered dietitian and professor at University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, said that claims such as “100% whole grains,” “high fiber,” “reduced sodium,” “no trans fat,” and “no sugar added” can help people find healthful foods in a grocery store; however, “be wary of ‘fat free’ or ‘sugar free’ claims,” Meyer warned.

“Oftentimes when you remove fat or sugar from a product during processing, something needs to be added back in,” Meyer said. “Generally, if you remove fat there may be more added sugar and if you remove sugar from a product, you may find it is higher in fat than the ‘regular’ version.”

In general, sticking with whole, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes to support heart health and avoiding processed carbohydrates and items high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars can help improve the diet to support heart health. Whole foods high in fiber are good for heart health.

“The big problem with a lot of the packaged foods is fiber,” said Barb Sylvester, clinical dietitian and certified diabetes education with Kaleida Health’s Nutrition & Wellness Center. “It’s hard to get a lot of fiber in processed foods. Anything more than 3 grams per serving is good and 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day is ideal.

“Many providers say, ‘Eat more whole grains’ and they buy a bran muffin instead of a chocolate chip muffin and they’re both about the same, just 2 or 3 grams more, but with all the sugar, it’s not that much better. Or people buy whole grain pasta and they end up eating more because they’re not as concerned about portion so they eat more carbs which turn to sugar.”

Sylvester stresses portion control and shopping the outer perimeter of the store, where typically fewer processed items are stocked.

Connery suggested looking for lean sources of meat.

“Have fish and chicken rather than so much red meat,” Connery said. “It’s about moderation. Maybe have a turkey burger sometimes. Venison and some local beef aren’t so high in fat. Look for the percent of fat in the ground beef, for example.

A moderate amount of naturally occurring fat found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fishes can promote heart health.

Along with diet, other lifestyle factors contribute to heart health. Anyone concerned about heart health should discuss the topic with a healthcare provider.