Turned off by the big tick

By Meeghan, 12 May, 2010

When I was at school, some time ago now, a tick symbol was recognized as a mark for correct and a cross symbol was a mark for incorrect. I liked that system, pretty simple and fairly black and white.

But the tick of today isn’t as straight forward as it once was. Two of the most recognized logos in Australia, the Heart Foundation tick, representing healthy food choices for consumers and McDonald’s, representing burgers and fries, continue to be engaged in a dubious healthy food alliance. And now I’m confused.

Since early 2007 the Heart Foundation has given the tick of approval to a number of McDonald’s meals. Tick meal 2 currently consists of 6 Chicken McNuggets served with a garden salad and 1560 kilojoules, 21.7 grams of fat and 687 mg of salt per serve. Add fries or an orange juice to your chicken McNuggets and the tick obviously, becomes void. But does this meal, without the fries, deserve a tick when it is already so high in energy, fat and salt? And should the Heart Foundation continue to endorse a company that still sells a heart attack in a box, the Big Mac?

The Heart Foundation believed they had a responsibility to ‘shake’ up the fast food market in 2007. They argued they were dealing with the reality of the Western world and were challenging fast food companies to produce healthier not healthy food.* A challenging but necessary partnership was formed and the fast food giant they say, has had to work hard to meet the nutrition standards of the Tick Criteria Working group.

CHOICE magazine however, recently reviewed the Heart Foundation tick and expressed concern that the development and subsequent reviews of the tick criteria were not open to broad consultation and, sugar which currently isn’t included in any product criteria, should be. They also made a good point that manufacturers pay a licence fee** for the Heart Foundation tick; other products may be just as good or better but competitors have decided not to be endorsed by the tick program.

The Heart Foundation, a non-profit organization, has a mission to ‘to improve the cardiac health of Australians’ but is sending mixed messages to the consumer. On the one hand the tick implies healthy food choice but in reality it is only a healthier food choice, the best from a bad bunch. Yes, the Tick meals are lower in saturated fat and salt than they were before (when they were super high) but they are still high! Will the tick endorsement move a Big Mac eater to change to a tick meal? Hardly, I think it’s more likely to attract new customers to McDonald’s and normalize the eating of burgers and fries.

And I keep asking myself is it really possible that the junk food giant who in part created the obesity epidemic now really wants to fix the problem? Or is it all part of McDonald’s re-branding, an attempt to boost its image after the public backlash from films like Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation? Could it simply be savvy marketing spin, an ingenious move to re-position itself as a healthy and nutritious company? Either way I believe it has hurt the integrity of the tick.

McDonald’s is in the business of selling burgers and fries and being aligned with the Heart Foundation (and soon to be Weight Watchers in Australia)*** is a great promotion that will attract the health conscious mother aged 25-39 (with children) looking for healthier convenience food. Now if these women come in through the golden arches then McDonald’s also has a new generation of child customers to target. Australian nutritionist Rosemary Stanton said the sales of burgers and fries soared when McDonald’s first introduced its healthy Deli Choices menu in 2004 and I would suggest McDonald’s knew then, it was on to something. An alliance with the Heart Foundation since 2007 is an attempt to increase product sales through an unconvincing healthier line of food. And to add mockery to the Heart Foundation endorsement tick last October McDonalds profits soared another 6%, mostly because of burgers and fries sales.

More than three years down the track the Heart Foundation continues to endorse a company who’s bottom line is still burgers and fries and yet obesity is on the up and up, as are McDonald’s profits. If the heart foundation is serious about improving the cardiac heath of Australians they cannot continue to endorse a company which sells high fat and high sodium junk food. Yes where I come from it’s pretty simple and black and white. I’ll be putting a big fat cross through any food with a Heart Foundation tick and I won’t purchase in protest.

*Burgers are big business - fast food restaurants around Australia sell 2.7 million meals a day and an estimated 1.2 million Australians eat McDonalds, the king of junk food, daily.

**McDonald’s pays $330,000 to the Heart Foundation each year to earn the tick of approval. This money goes towards the cost of testing meals to make sure they meet Tick criteria working group standards and random auditing of restaurants.

**Sometime soon coming to a McDonalds near you, the Weight Watchers logo will be on McDonald’s menu boards and tray mats and the slimming company will promote McDonald’s at dieters meetings and on TV. It’s already happening in New Zealand.

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