The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa (HSFSA) has demanded an immediate retraction of all advertising that says it endorses all Helios food products.
"The placement of the Heart Mark logo creates a false and misleading impression for consumers that all of the products depicted in the advertisement are endorsed by the HSFSA. In reality, only one product has the license to carry the Heart Mark endorsement (Helios Pure Sunflower Oil). Despite the HSFSA’s warning, no amendments have been made to correct public perception," the foundation said in a press release.
The Heart Mark is a guideline and incentive for shoppers to instantly identify heart-healthy products on the shelf. These products are lower in cholesterol, lower in saturated fat, lower in sodium, higher in fibre (where applicable) and lower in added sugar.
Products that carry the Heart Mark logo have to comply with stringent nutritional standards set by the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA and are regularly audited an independent, accredited laboratory to ensure that criteria is continuously met.
According to the foundation's CEO, Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, they were first alerted to the problem in early October when they received an anonymous call through their diet line. "A caller asked whether it was true that we endorsed Helios brick margarine," Mungal-Singh recalls. "We were shocked as we would never endorse a hard margarine.”
(Brick margarines have a high trans-fat content which have the same effect as saturated fats: they increase LDL (bad cholesterol), which is directly linked to an increase risk of heart disease and strokes.)
"And yet, there are Helios billboards and transport trucks in Pietermaritzburg [where the mother company, Unity Foods, is based] advertising their brick margarine, sunflower oil and tub margarine, together with our trusted Heart Mark logo," says Mungal-Singh.
“The foundation demands that Unity Foods, which produces Helios products, must publish a formal apology and withdraw all the relevant advertising and marketing material."
According to Mungal-Singh, the Helios sunflower oil is the only product that has been approved by the Heart and Stroke Foundation to carry the Heart Mark logo. "Unity Food products have approached us to have their tub margarine endorsed. They have presented their own lab tests which seem to comply with our criteria, however, until we have had the product tested by an independent, accredited laboratory, to ensure that it does indeed comply with our stringent requirements, we cannot endorse this product."
Despite not having received any official endorsement yet, the tub margarine already carries the Heart Mark logo in the shops. "This misleads the public," says Mungal-Singh. "Our Heart Mark is a trusted logo. When members of the public see it on a product, they know it's a good healthy choice. We have a responsibility towards them; our directions must be clear. They are not going to read between the lines!"
According to Mungal-Singh, the foundation has been in conversation with Unity Foods about this problem for more than a month, but still has not seen any correction or apology. "Unity Foods argue that it's 'common knowledge' that the Heart Mark endorsement wouldn't apply to brick margarine. Yes, it may be common knowledge to the industry that brick margarine is unhealthy, but the normal man on the street doesn't necessarily know. The public rely on the Heart Mark to make healthy choices and if there is any ambiguity, we must correct it immediately. And they certainly have no right to use the Heart Mark logo if they have not received a licence yet to do so."
However, Unity Food Products general manager, Farouk Vawda, denied the claims of misleading and false advertising.
"The Heart Mark logo in the advert was clearly intended to refer to the tubs only,” Vawda told Times LIVE. “This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the Heart Mark logo does not appear on the product packaging of the brick margarine. Notwithstanding, Unity Food apologises for any confusion caused by association of the Heart Mark logo with the Helios brick margarine."
Consumer Protection Act
Dr Mungal-Singh is still waiting for an official apology and a correction in the media.
"All I request is for Unity Foods and Helios to admit that they have made an error and to provide the public with the correct information. This could be a valuable exercise. I don't want to destroy our relationship with them and it’s possible that they did not mislead the public intentionally. We just need to understand our responsibility towards the public. Ultimately we should all aim to provide the public with clear messages about healthy options."
Mungal-Singh has already approached the Advertising Standards Authority for advice, should Unity Foods persist.
“There is a Consumer Protection Act which protects the public. The public has the right to clear health information and if they are being misled we must act.”
- (Birgit Ottermann, Health24, November 2010)