Doctors need to exercise caution when recommending products with the Heart Foundation Tick, argues nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, in an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia's Rapid-Online edition.

Dr Stanton, who is a Visiting Fellow in UNSW's School of Medical Sciences, says the Tick program can potentially misguide consumers about the salt and sugar content of foods and is vulnerable to manipulation by the food industry.

Dr Stanton's views appear in the MJA alongside an opposing opinion from National Heart Foundation experts.

"The National Heart Foundation of Australia plays a valuable role in bringing heart disease to public attention. However, shortcomings of their Heart Foundation Tick program demand caution," Dr Stanton writes.

"Media releases proclaim that the Tick has been 'awarded to' or 'earned by' particular foods. These must meet the Heart Foundation's nutritional criteria, but companies then pay to use the Tick. For food companies, whose purpose is to make a profit, the Tick is a marketing exercise … and the extra cost is passed on to the shopper," she says.

"(This) is a particular concern for people on low incomes, who have a higher incidence of diet-related health problems. Processed foods that bear the Tick almost invariably have a higher price, while cheaper products in many food categories may have a nutritional profile at least as good as those with the Tick — sometimes better," Dr Stanton says.

Dr Stanton says criteria for foods to earn the Tick are also questionable. Fast food companies had tweaked some of their menu offerings to gain use of the tick in their marketing but this had little impact on the decisions people made at the counter.

"The healthier option lures extra customers, but the bottom line is an increase in sales of regular burgers and fries," Dr Stanton told the Australian Associated Press.

To read the full MJA article, and the National Heart Foundation of Australia's opposing view, go to the MJA website.