Do you look for the red-and-white “Tick” of approval when you shop? Is it really giving you the healthiest choice on the shelf? Or is it something that companies just buy to make their product look better for you? I’ve long been a supporter of the Tick program and think it’s proved that it’s got the clout to make the Australian food supply healthier without alienating shoppers.
1. It's simple, quick and reliable
It's one simple, easy-to-spot logo. It gives shoppers a quick and dependable way to pick the healthier choice within the same food range. It's been around for over 22 years and is a de-facto front-of-pack labelling guide, simpler than the Traffic Light system now being considered and definitely simpler than the %DI (Per cent of Recommended Daily Intake) with its cluttered thumbnails.
2. It keeps manufacturers focused on nutrition
The Heart Foundation Tick on a food or meal indicates it has been independently tested and shown to meet the Heart Foundation's nutrition criteria for that category of food. It's not the absolute perfect choice. But it's a healthier choice compared to similar foods or meals (Source: The Tick Update Dec 2010).
Because companies are contracted to the Tick Program under a licensing agreement, they are legally bound to comply with Heart Foundation standards. Non-compliance leads to corrective action (forcing them to make label changes) or to remove the product from the shelves. Not insignificant consequences! It also reviews ads and packaging to make sure advertising doesn't overstate its case.
The Heart Foundation's efforts to get manufacturers to cut back on salt has had a big impact on the whole food supply. The best example is cereal. When one particular breakfast cereal company used the Tick criteria as a benchmark to reformulate 12 of their cereals, 235 tonnes of salt were removed from the food supply in one year.
3. It's tailor-made for a category
Each food category (e.g. oils, breads, muesli bars, frozen dinners) has its own nutrition criteria. And rightly so. It wouldn't make sense to set the same criteria for oil and for bread. There are 60 sets of standards for supermarket foods.
For example, the Heart Foundation tests frozen dinners for their saturated fat, salt, fibre and content of vegetables, but oils are only tested for the type of fat. Why? Oils have virtually no salt, no fibre and all have around the same total fat. The analysis pivots on whether an oil is high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, with less than 20 per cent saturated fat.
So, for foods in the Ready To Eat breakfast cereals category, foods have to meet standards for energy, saturated fat, trans fats, sodium and percentage wholegrain or fibre, to get the Tick, whilst a food in the cheese category has to meet standards for saturated fat, sodium and calcium, to get the Tick. See below.
Oils – two standards apply
- Saturated fat must be less than 20 per cent of the total fat
- Trans fat must be less than 1 per cent of the total fat
Breads – four standards apply
- Saturated fat must be 1.5 g per 100 grams or less
- Trans fat must be 0.2 g per 100 grams or less
- Sodium must be 400 mg per 100 grams or less
- Fibre must be 4 g per 100 grams or more
Breakfast cereals – five standards apply
- Energy must be 800 kJ per serve or less
- Saturated fat must be 1.5 g per 100 grams or less
- Trans fats must be 0.2 g per 100 grams or less
- Sodium must be 400 mg per 100 grams or less
- Wholegrain content must be 50 per cent wholegrains or more
Fibre must be 3g per serve or more
4. It's updated
The Heart Foundation revises its cut-offs which forces food companies to meet levels of lower salt, less or no trans fat, lower kilojoules, smaller portion size and more vegetable servings. You see there is a continual product improvement, nutritionally, of Tick products over time. A good thing for consumers!
The downside is that sugar is not yet a limiting criteria for any of the food categories. Considering the criteria are always evolving as new research becomes accepted, hopefully agreed sugar levels are not too far off, making it easier still for parents and families to shop wisely.
5. It's realistic
The Tick doesn't set standards that will produce foods that taste terrible. Anyone can bake a bread with no added salt, but would anyone buy it? No. Ditto for salt-free cereal, soup and crispbread. But I bet you've hardly noticed the gradual drop in salt in a Tick bread or cereal.
Sodium (salt) comparison mg per 100 grams of bread
Regular bread 600-800 mg
Tick cut-off criteria less than 400 mg
Salt-free bread less than 120 mg
Tick foods are not always "perfect" as far as nutritionists are concerned. However, relative to what else is out there, they are "better for you". The Heart Foundation is gradually, unnoticeably adjusting people's tastebuds back to a point where excess salt, trans fat, and lack of fibre isn't the norm in our everyday food. A hefty task!
Note: Catherine Saxelby has no vested interest in writing this article besides informing her readers! No payment or request was received from The Heart Foundation.
4 commonly asked questions about The Tick – and my take on them
Q1. Do the companies just pay for it?
A. No. Before they get the Tick, food companies have to get the product right so it meets the criteria for saturated fat, trans fat, salt, portion size or whatever is relevant to their category. Often this means reformulation, maybe several times (eg getting an instant soup to taste good with 30 per cent less salt and twice as much vegetables), retest in a lab and even purchase new equipment. Then they have to revise their labelling and advertising.
The meat pie that got the Tick in 2005 is a good example of how hard companies have to work to get it right. Piemaker Four ‘n’ Twenty found they could reduce the fat in the meat filling but the pastry was a real barrier – it needed proper baking fat to make those thin crispy flakes on the top and not leak. But in collaboration with Unilever, Four ‘n’ Twenty managed to create a new pastry that had half the saturated fat, one-third of the kilojoules and was free of trans fats. This doesn’t mean this pie is the nutritional equivalent of a tuna salad but it does mean you have a healthier choice next time you feel like tucking into a hot pie!
The fees the Heart Foundation collects go to:
- pay dietitians to review the nutrient criteria – typically every two or three years
- work with companies to reformulate, double-check advertising and pack claims
- advertising to let consumers know what’s in the supermarket
- educating health professionals, maintaining a web site
- analysing the products – including buying the Tick foods from supermarkets anonymously which are then analysed by an independent lab as a check
Q2. How much does the Tick cost?
A: The Heart Foundation charges a licence fee which is made up of an administration fee (based on the number of products) plus a sales fee (based on a percentage of the sales value) over a year. At present, a company with one product and sales at the base rate would pay a minimum fee of $5,665 plus GST which is quite reasonable. On top of that, the only other cost is the cost of getting their product analysed at an approved lab – but this is useful information that most companies have done regularly.
And yes, you might pay a little more at the supermarket. For instance, a 500g tub of Dairy Farmers Low Fat Cottage Cheese with the Tick costs $4.98. A tub of Coles Lite Creamed Cottage Cheese with no Tick is only $4.29 (but it’s a home brand as well).
Q3. How do snack foods/processed foods get a Tick?
A: They meet the limits for that category. So they’ve been re-formulated to have less saturated or trans fat, less fat, little salt and possibly more fibre or calcium or whole grains. Maybe they are high in one key ingredient like bran or berries. Usually these foods have no colours or preservatives but this is not a Tick requirement, parents seek it.
Foods don’t have to be fresh to get the Tick. Cereals and muesli bars come under criticism for looking too “processed” but in reality they’re ok for saturated fat - and that’s what’s being measured.
Remember people don’t eat everything fresh today. Snack foods approved by the Heart Foundation are still “healthier” relative to all the other snack products out there.
Q4. Is there a difference between two identical products, one with the Tick and one without?
A. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. For example, a packet of rolled oats with the Tick is essentially the same as rolled oats with no Tick. Buy whichever brand you like or which is the cheapest. On the other hand two muesli bars, one with the Tick and one without, could vary greatly.
Read a quick history of The Tick
The Tick program was launched. In those days, before it was compulsory to carry nutrition labelling as it is today, all foods carrying the Tick logo were required to display Nutrition Information Panels. Ahead of its time.
The Tick program was a first of its kind in the world with nutrition standards. Initially it kicked off with 11 food categories and 140 products. Some of these products are still with the Program, such as Meadow Lea and Flora spread (1)
The Heart Foundation called on food companies to remove or reduce trans fats.
The Tick program introduced saturated fat and trans fat limits for margarine spreads. The Heart Foundation worked with fats and oils companies to adapt their production and encouraged them to invest in equipment needed to produce soft margarines with less than 1% trans fat.
A Heart Foundation position paper established the benefits of plant sterols and stanols to heart health.
The Tick set stricter levels for salt, trans fat, kilojoules and key nutrients such as calcium and protein.
The Tick was introduced to take-away and food service meals to offer healthier choices as more and more people eat out.
McDonalds became the first quick service restaurant chain to get the Heart Foundation's Tick for foodservice.
Now 90 companies and more than 930 food outlets sell over 1300 Tick-approved healthier products (2).
The Tick is in 18 out of 20 top selling food categories in the supermarket – fresh as well as processed foods. Note: the Tick is not allowed in categories such as confectionary and alcohol.
Source: (1) Heart Foundation Tick: Two decades of helping Australians choose healthier foods. National Heart Foundation of Australia, 2009 (2) Personal comm, Heart Foundation Tick, 8 June 2011
For detailed info on the Tick criteria, see the following links:
- Heart Foundation website: The Tick info
- Heart Foundation website: Tick products in the supermarket
- Heart Foundation website: Product and Licensee retail list
- Heart Foundation website: Eating Out Guide
- Heart Foundation website: Tick Criteria
The Tick in the news
ALDI supermarket earns The Tick
ALDI becomes the first supermarket in Australia to earn the Tick for improvements to their own-brand products (especially breads) & produce. Eventually a quarter of ALDI's shelves will be stocked with Tick approved foods ranging from fresh foods like meat, seafood, milk, eggs and fruit and veggies to staple grocery items like bread, margarine and yoghurt. Ninety two per cent of ALDI's breads, rolls and English muffins now have less salt. And more than 50% have met the Tick's combined standards of less salt, less saturated fat and more fibre. Read more.
The foods that have been with the Tick the longest
The Tick Program kicked off with 11 food categories. Within the first year, 31 companies earned the Tick for 140 products. These companies are still with the Tick program today:
- George Weston Foods (breads)
- Goodman Fielder (spreads, oils)
- Inghams (chicken)
- Meat Livestock Australia (meats)
- M.E.B. Foods (breads)
- Murray Goulburn Co-op (dairy)
- National Foods (dairy)
- Unilever Australia (spreads, oils)
- Ward McKenzie (legumes)