‘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?

“We’re looking for foods low in fat, cholesterol and sodium,” said Joshua W. Harrison, cardiologist with Crouse Medical Practice. “Lowering LDL is shown to lower risk of heart disease and sodium leads to hypertension.”

A handy claim of “low fat” or “low cholesterol” may seem easy shorthand to attract health-conscious consumers; however, Harrison said that oftentimes, foods with these labels contain higher levels of carbohydrates and sugar.

“These lead to more diabetes and weight gain,” Harrison said. “The other criticism is that these companies that sell these different foods are often paying big donations to the American Heart Association. There’s a conflict of interest there. The labels are helpful, especially when looking at processed foods.”

He added that eating more whole foods presents a sounder strategy than going by label claims.

Russell Silverman, cardiologist with St. Joseph’s Health, also believes that label claims can be misleading.

“Many people have the misconception that claims made on labels are translatable into positive health outcomes,” Silverman said.

Silverman added that there are three categories of claims defined by law and FDA regulations that can be used on food and dietary supplement labels: health claims, nutrient claims, structure/function claims.

“It is important that you read the calorie claims, sugar claims, fat claims, cholesterol claims, sodium claims and dietary fiber claims,” Silverman said. “Terms such as ‘free’ means the food has the least possible amounts of something. ‘Very low’ or ‘low’ means the food has a little more than foods labeled as free.

“‘Reduced’ or ‘less’ means the food has 25% less of a specific nutrient than the regular product. ‘More,’ ‘fortified,’ ‘enriched,’ ‘added,’ ‘extra,’ or ‘plus,’ means that the food has 10% or more of the daily value than the regular product. This is reserved for protein, minerals, vitamins, dietary fiber and potassium.”

It’s also important to realize that some ingredients go by different names. Silverman said that as an example, sugar may be listed as high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup or dehydrated cane sugar, to name just a few. “Trans-fat is less common than it has been but nonetheless is still present and is extremely unhealthy. It will not be listed as trans fat, per se, but may be listed as partially hydrogenated oil of some sort.”

Kim Vespi, clinical dietitian for The Nottingham, part of Loretto, distinguishes between the type of fat in foods.

“Choose ‘heart healthy’ fat,” she said. “It is important to limit saturate fat found in animal-based foods. Fatty meats, bacon, sausage, marbled beef and whole fat dairy foods — limit these fats. The other type to avoid is trans fats. It’s mainly in processed foods like baked goods, fried foods, anything with margarine or shortening. Partially hydrogenated oil: avoid it. That’s a trans fat.”

Instead, eat moderate amounts of heart healthy fat, like salmon and tuna, walnuts and flaxseed, which have omega-3 fatty acids.

Despite their fat content, “these are beneficial,” Vespi said, unlike foods such as gummy bears that bear a “fat free” label, but have no nutrients.

“Choose your grains and carbohydrate carefully,” she added. “Avoid processed flour and white sugar. a lot of hidden sugar is in beverages we drink. If you change your beverages, you can eliminate a lot of sugar.”

Andrew M. Weinberg, doctor of osteopathic medicine, is one of the general cardiologists with the Upstate Cardiovascular Group and is the medical director of Upstate’s Non-Invasive Vascular Lab.

“We as consumers have to advocate for ourselves but also have to make the best possible health decisions,” Weinberg said.

When he reads nutrition labels, he typically looks at the serving size, total fat, calories from fat, total calories and total carbohydrates. He advised sticking with produce and lower fat foods to support heart health and avoiding processed carbohydrates and items high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.

“Foods that are typically healthy for us — fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats — typically have low total fat, calories from fat, total calories and carbohydrates,” Weinberg said. “Foods high in fiber and protein–fruits, grains, oats are also very healthy for us.”

To find these good foods and skip the less healthful options, shop the store’s perimeter. Generally, that’s the area lacking pre-packaged foods and providing more healthful items like produce.