Just the other day I posted about a recent British Medical Journal paper showing vegetable oils rich in the omega-6 fat linoleic acid were associated with a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. This association was detected in randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs) where subjects were instructed to cut their saturated fat intake and replace it with polyunsaturated fat sources such as sunflower, corn and safflower oil.
Despite their harmful effects, heart associations have been pushing LA-rich oils ever since the early 1960s purely because they have been shown to lower cholesterol. I won't go into what an utter sham the cholesterol hypothesis of CHD is; I've already spent more time than I care detailing every facet of this myth in The Great Cholesterol Con. What I will reiterate here is that LA-rich vegetable oils have completely failed to lower overall and cardiovascular mortality in controlled clinical trials. In fact, as I pointed out in Wednesday's article, there is compelling evidence to show these oils can increase mortality not just from heart disease but also cancer.
The deleterious effects of LA-rich oils were further underscored when the authors of the BMJ report included the updated Sydney data in a meta-analysis with two other clinical trials in which LA intake was specifically increased at the expense of saturated fats. This meta-analysis found a marked relative risk increase in coronary heart disease mortality of 84% among subjects on the LA-rich intervention diets.
While I wholeheartedly applaud the authors of the recent BMJ paper, I must also point out this is hardly breaking news. When the LA craze first began some 50 years ago, it dawned a series of clinical trials examining the effect of LA-rich oils on heart disease. Invariably, the trials in which increasing LA was the only or prime intervention were resounding failures, a fact that is readily evident to anyone who cares to retrieve and read the trial reports for themselves.
Also disturbing is the link between LA-rich oils and cancer. Rodent studies have repeatedly and consistently shown higher tumour incidence and higher death rates among rodents consuming LA-rich diets than those on saturate-rich diets. Epidemiological studies show an association between higher LA-intake and increased cancer mortality, while at least one clinical trial - the LA Veterans Study - showed higher cancer mortality among subjects on an LA-rich diet despite their lower cigarette consumption!
LA-rich vegetable oils, then, are clearly a cause for concern. Unless, it seems, you're a Heart Association or Foundation that receives money from the manufacturers of these oils. Far be it from me to suggest the folks at these organizations would ever let financial motives cloud their better judgement - because as we all know, money couldn't possibly have such an influence on people, no sirree, never - but something sure as hell seems to be blinding them to the truth about these dubious oils.
In yesterday's post, I noted that "even as recently as last year, I was stunned – and disgusted – during a trip to the supermarket to see a brand of refined linoleate-rich oil proudly sporting the Australian National Heart Foundation Tick of Approval".
Yesterday morning I made a quick trip to the supermarket and, my recent article still fresh in mind, I took a quick detour down the vegetable oil aisle to see if the same oil was still available. Sure enough, the shelves were still home to Crisco brand sunflower oil proudly sporting the Australian National Heart Foundation Tick.
Let's be perfectly clear here: When the National Heart Foundation of Australia allows its Tick to be placed on sunflower oil (second only to safflower oil in LA concentration), it knows full well this will lead many consumers to believe sunflower oil is a heart-healthy food. That's the whole point of the Tick program, and it's the very reason why manufacturers readily fork over thousands of dollars for the rights to place the Tick logo on their products. It behooves the Heart Foundation, therefore, to ensure its Tick is placed only on foods that have been demonstrated to enhance human cardiovascular and overall health. The reality is that neither sunflower nor any other other LA-rich oil has demonstrated the ability to lower heart disease or overall mortality. In fact, as folks like lipid biochemist Mary Enig and others pointed out decades ago, and as the authors of the BMJ report reiterated last week, LA-rich diets appear to increase cardiovascular and overall mortality.
So why would the National Heart Foundation endorse LA-rich oils as heart-healthy, when they clearly do nothing to enhance cardiovascular health and may well worsen it?
Well, I have my own suspicions, but I can't get inside the heads of the NHF's Tick program staff to confirm them. What I will say here is this is hardly the first time the National Heart Foundation has shown highly questionable judgement in awarding its Ticks.
In 2008, Sydney's Sunday Telegraph reported that to get a Tick, "foods are required to be better than some other products within the food category, meaning meat pies, sausage rolls and even deep-frying oil can qualify to carry the label."
Hmmm, that's a bit like labeling someone a teetotaler because they don't get drunk quite as often as the rest of their boozing peers. As one well-known Australian nutritionist complained, "... so you're getting the best of a bad bunch. Would they be prepared to give a cigarette that has half as much nicotine a Tick?''
The Heart Foundation's less-than-stringent requirements enabled none other than fast food giant McDonald's to join the Tick program in 2007. After it forked over a cool $330,000, that is.
The National Heart Foundation's website boasts the Tick scheme is a "trusted, independent not-for profit program". Methinks "independent" is a most contentious description for a program in which the Heart Foundation receives money directly from food manufacturers in exchange for Ticks!
According to the Sunday Telegraph report, the Heart Foundation does not reveal how much it raises via its Tick program but it is believed to be millions of dollars. Fees range from a minimum $3000 licence per annum to 0.25 per cent of sales of ticked foods.
At the time of the 2008 Sunday Telegraph report, the Foundation was telling companies in its pitch for the tick program that it "helps sell meals and encourage repeat business". After securing the tick for some of its salad-based menu items in 2007, McDonald's reportedly enjoyed a large growth in burger sales.
Ticked Off, But Whose Fault Is That?
The National Heart Foundation's response to the Sunday Telegraph story was to accuse the newspaper of attempting to damage its reputation.
But leading brand experts and health professionals said the Heart Foundation ruined their own brand by aligning with fast food seven years ago.
"It has to damage the credibility of the heart brand," said University of Sydney business professor Charles Areni said.
"It's very unlikely people were ever going to think of McDonald's as a place you go for healthy food. The relationship confused consumers who could now completely discount the heart Tick," he said. And the fact McDonald's paid $300,000 a year to wear the healthy badge devalued the Tick's relevance, he said.
Public health professor Simon Chapman said ditching fast food was the only way to resurrect the heart brand. He said fast food operators used the Tick as a marketing tool, encouraging parents into the store only to be pestered by children to buy the less healthy option.
Heart Foundation chief executive Dr Lyn Roberts denied the Tick program had failed or had damaged its brand (Crisco and numerous other food manufacturers evidently agree), but said "it was impossible to monitor the fast food environment because there were too many stores."
"In the surveys we do across Australia the feedback we get is the Tick is really valued," she said. "People do trust it and they trust the Heart Foundation."
"People may be questioning why you can see the heart Tick on a banana and on a McDonald's burger," said consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier. "If people aren't clear about what the Tick stands for then it will become meaningless."
Despite insisting to the Sunday Telegraph in 2008 that "the program is forcing the fast-food industry to improve nutritional standards", the National Heart Foundation canceled its heavily-criticised Tick agreement with McDonalds in 2011.
Critics correctly note that food products with no Tick can be healthier and cheaper than endorsed products and some small manufacturers are unable to afford licence fees. And there lies a huge problem with the program - people are led to believe there is something inherently superior and healthier about foods bearing the Tick, when in reality it only appears on those products as a result of a commercial licensing agreement. If manufacturers do not enter the agreement and pay the necessary fees, their product will never be considered for a Tick. As a result, foods that are every bit as nutritious or in fact superior will never bear the Tick, leading many consumers to believe they are not as healthy as those that do.
In the absence of an outright ban on such questionable commercial arrangements, this author strongly believes there should at the very least be a law requiring the Tick logo to include a prominent disclaimer that the Tick is only awarded to food companies who pay a fee to the National Heart Foundation. No doubt both the Heart Foundation and participating food companies would strongly object to such a requirement, but the first priority in such scenarios should always be to protect consumers from being misled and to allow them to make informed choices.
Here's what I propose, although I truly doubt our regulatory agencies would ever have the nads to mandate anything like it:
Legal disclaimer: To preempt the nasty - and fruitless - threats I'll no doubt receive from the legal team of a certain heart foundation, I must point out the obvious and state the above is not the actual National Heart Foundation Tick logo, but what I personally consider one that effectively alerts consumers to the commercial nature of the Tick program. The modified logo above is presented purely for educational, artistic and non-commercial purposes. Anthony Colpo and AnthonyColpo.com have no association or relationship with the National Heart Foundation whatsoever.
I also strongly believe the same requirement should be foisted upon all other Heat Associations and Foundations around the world, including the American Heart Association who, through its commercial Heart Check program, has seen fit to endorse such 'health' foods over the years as Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, Cookie Crisps, Corn Chex, Count Chocula, Frosted Mini Wheats, fat-free Popcorn, low-fat ice cream, pancake mix, crackers, high-GI fruit juices, and processed meats.
To gain AHA Heart Check status, so long as a manufacturer is prepared to fork over the requisite fees, they only have to meet the following criteria to gain a “standard certification” from the AHA:
--Less than 6.5g total fat
--1g or less and 15% or less calories from saturated fat
--Less than 0.5g trans fat per label serving
--Cholesterol: 20 mg or less
--Sodium: 480 mg or less (also per label serving)
--10% or more of the Daily Value of 1 of 6 nutrients (vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber)
Not exactly stringent criteria...
For those of you who rely on so-called health 'authorities' for accurate and impartial diet information based on valid science, it's time to acknowledge this information may be nowhere near as impartial as you've been led to believe, and may have far more to do with vested financial arrangements than good science.
Anthony Colpo is an independent researcher, physical conditioning specialist, and author of The Fat Loss Bible and The Great Cholesterol Con. For more information, visit TheFatLossBible.net or TheGreatCholesterolCon.com
Copyright © Anthony Colpo.
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