Heart Check Certification is given to a variety of products by the American Heart Association as a consumer guide to “heart-healthy” foods. Products have to qualify to receive the certification, so the general assumption among consumers seeing that Heart Check certification is that the product bearing the symbol is better for you than one that doesn’t.

The AHA and Campbell’s soup are being sued for misleading consumers, stating that their “Healthy Request” line of soup products are not as healthy as the Heart Check symbol is leading people to believe. In order for these products to carry the Heart Check certification, Campbell’s had to pay a fee to the AHA and meet specific nutritional criteria. The products must contain 480 milligrams of sodium or less per serving (as well as other cut off levels for saturated and trans fat, cholesterol and other nutrient criteria deemed by the AHA).

Campbell’s “Healthy Request” soups meet these criteria. Those filing the lawsuit however, claim that the AHA’s sodium cut-off is not consistent with its recommendations to limit daily sodium intake.

A single serving of Campbell’s “Healthy Request” condensed chicken noodle soup for example has 410 milligrams of sodium. That’s obviously within the AHA criteria, so what’s the problem?

The serving size.

There are actually 2.5 servings of the soup in each can. One can contains over 1,000 mg. of sodium which is over two-thirds of the 1500 milligrams the AHA recommends for daily sodium intake.

The class action lawsuit is acknowledging the fact that the typical consumer isn’t going to eat a half can of soup for lunch. They’re more likely to consume the entire can. Campbell’s and the AHA can argue that the serving size doesn’t contain the maximum of 480 mg of sodium, but consumers are ingesting much more than that whenever they eat the entire product. And that’s what makes the certification misleading. The lawsuit seeks to change the soup-can labeling and compensate those who bought the soup under false pretenses.
“This is not a food-police kind of lawsuit,” Levitt said. “The issue here is about whether a major, major food company in the United States, as well as a leading heart health organization, can lie to the American public.”

In a videotaped response, the chief science officer for the American Heart Association said the organization will fight the lawsuit. “The claim in the lawsuit is inaccurate and false and it’s not even plausible,” said Dr. Rose Marie Robertson. “Our ‘Heart Check’ mark helps consumers make smarter choices about the foods they eat. It is not deceptive or misleading.”

The AHA’s Science Officer also said the “Heart Check” criteria and AHA’s general nutritional guidance are both available to the public. In a written statement, the organization emphasizes it recommends an average of 1500 mg of sodium or less per day. And not all foods must be low sodium to fit in a heart healthy diet.

FoodFacts.com weighs in on this subject from a very definite viewpoint. We certainly think that it’s possible that many manufacturers are aware that their products are not being consumed according to the serving sizes listed on the packaging. That’s how some nutrition labels can read 0 in the Trans Fat column, even though they contain partially hydrogenated oils. And how some soups can qualify as “lower sodium” or “heart healthy” when they really aren’t. Half a cup of soup for lunch can make for one hungry human by three o’clock in the afternoon. And we’re really doubtful someone is saving the rest of the can for the next day.

We’re not sure what will happen with this class action suit. The AHA clearly states its requirements and recommendations (and these products are within those guidelines.) Campbell’s clearly states on its label that one serving (which contains 410 mg. of sodium) is half a cup. Both AHA requirements and Campbell’s labeling may, in fact, be misleading – but they aren’t lying. They’re using some tried and true sales techniques that get consumers to think something about a product that isn’t exactly a lie – and isn’t exactly the truth either. You very well could consume only 410 mg. of sodium – but you may easily consume more.

Should that kind of labeling be legal? Is it misleading? Does it deserve Heart Check Certification? FoodFacts.com thinks that there are better questions to ask like “What do certifications like Heart Check actually mean for consumers and should we trust our health to symbols that may or may not mean what we perceive?”