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How does food get a heart-check mark?

American Heart Association certifies some products

Alicia M Prater, Contributing writer

Maintaining a healthy diet is an important part of heart disease prevention.

The American Heart Association created the heart-check mark as a means to certify foods and extend a stamp of approval to healthier choices on the grocery store shelves.

Products with the mark must pass the group's criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.

In order to receive AHA certification, a food manufacturer must supply the dietary and nutrition information for the product. If the levels are close to the cutoff criteria, the American Heart Association conducts its own lab testing to verify that the product's nutritional content.

There are three kinds of certification that can be obtained, each based on the nutrition content of a single serving size, as determined by the manufacturer.

The first level is standard certification. To be granted this certification, products must contain 3 g or less of total fat, 1 g or less of saturated fat, less than 0.5 g of trans fat, 20 mg or less of cholesterol, 480 mg or less of sodium, and 10 percent or more of the daily value of one of six vitamins and minerals: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, or dietary fiber.

The second level of certification that can be obtained is whole grains certification. The food must meet the same criteria as the standard certification -- except the total fat content, which is allowed to be as high as 6.5 g -- and the product must contain a certain proportion of dietary fiber and 51 percent whole grains by weight.

The third level of certification is whole-oats soluble fiber certification. It must meet the same criteria as the standard certification except the amount of total fat, which is not considered if it is derived from whole-oat sources alone. If the total fat is derived from non-whole-oat sources, the cutoff is 3 g. The product must also contain 0.75 g or more of whole-oat soluble fiber.

Meat, which is considered under different criteria, have to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for "extra lean" and contain less than 5 g total fat, less than 2 g saturated fat, less than 95 mg cholesterol, less than 0.5 g trans fat, 480 mg or less sodium, and at least 10 percent of one of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, or dietary fiber. However, the American Heart Association does not certify beef ribeye or strip steaks.

The heart-check mark is an indicator of very specific components in the foods that apply for certification. Products should be taken as a whole, and consumers should still examine product labels to make informed decisions about the food.

Remember, the mark does not take into account any heart unhealthy components that may be present in the products. Products that pass the above criteria may still contain high levels of sugar, have a high caloric content or lack important vitamins.

A heart healthy diet can be achieved by following the D.A.S.H program, which is rich in fruits and vegetables, low in sodium and simple carbohydrates, and includes whole grains, high-fiber foods, lean meats and poultry, fish, and fat-free or 1 percent fat dairy products.