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Health: Heart-Check Foods: Heart Healthy Or Not?

By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Heart healthy or not?  They're foods that are supposed to be good for you.  Certified with a "Heart-Check" by The American Heart Association.  But are they really?  Health Reporter Stephanie Stahl looks into the secret behind the symbol.

Like millions of Americans, Felicia Woods carefully watches how much salt she eats because she has high blood pressure.

"I was hospitalized for that and the doctor was saying to me you have to watch what you're eating," said Felicia.

Cardiologist William Weintraub says excessive salt intake can cause serious issues.

"Elevated blood pressure leads to an increase in cardiovascular events, leads to strokes, leads to heart attacks, leads to renal failure, kidney failure, and leads to death," said Dr. Weintraub.

To help people like Felicia, The American Heart Association has guidelines on salt.  It recommends fifteen hundred milligrams a day.  For low sodium dieters, no more than 140 milligrams per serving.

It also allows companies to put its certification, a Heart-Check, on 903 products.  That it says are "heart healthy," looking at salt, along with things like cholesterol and fat.

But we found a number of items that had far more sodium than the per serving guideline.  Soup stock with 480 milligrams.  Lentils with 460 milligrams.  Deli ham with 450 milligrams, and Campbell's Chicken soup with 410 milligrams.

Stahl asked Andrew Hulfish, of Cherry Hill, "What do you think about the Heart Association putting a check mark on something that has so much sodium on it?"

Andrew replied, "Well it's definitely misleading."

"I would call it deceptive," said Terry Spanier, of Haddon Heights.

What's going on here?  Turns out there are two guidelines.  Remember the American Heart Association's general guideline is 140 milligrams per serving, but the majority of Heart-Check products have up to 480 milligrams.

"First of all, I wasn't involved," said Dr. Weintraub, who is also President of a local branch of the American Heart Association.

Stahl said to Dr. Weintraub, "This can of Campbell's chicken soup has almost one thousand milligrams of sodium in it.   But it still has the heart healthy check mark, does that seem right to you?"

Dr. Weintraub replied, "I wouldn't give it the heart health checkmark, but I don't know all the criteria that went into giving it that checkmark."

But Dr. Weintraub did point out the soup is low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

"In other ways this is pretty good," said Dr. Weintraub.

Manufacturers pay about three thousand dollars for a Heart-Check.  Last year, the Heart Association collected 2.7 million dollars.

"It fails to comply with the AHA's own standards," said Adam Levitt, who filed suit against the American Heart Association and The Campbell's Soup Company, alleging the Heart-Check is unfair, deceptive and misleading.

"For the AHA and Campbell's to be engaging in what we believe is an act of deception with respect to these products is a very serious issue," said Levitt.

The Heart Association tells 3 On Your Side that the Heart-Check fees are only used to cover the expenses related to the program.  It does not have a universal low sodium dietary guideline of 140 milligrams per serving because not all foods must be low sodium to fit in a heart healthy diet.  And the program's criteria are based on sound science and are consistent with the FDA and USDA regulations.

Regardless, Felicia says she'll be more careful reading labels.

"Just because something supposed to be healthy doesn't mean it's always healthy," said Felicia.

Campbell's says the allegations of the lawsuit are without merit, and its labels are in compliance with all legal requirements.

By the way, we noticed on the Heart Association website that some of the sodium levels in the Heart-Check program are being lowered next year.

American Heart Association Heart-Check Program Information-

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