A University of Windsor professor, who has done extensive research into children's nutritional habits, is cautioning parents about a recent ad campaign launched by the Harvey's hamburger chain.

Sarah Woodruff said a new ad, mailed to homes, has the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Health Check symbol "plastered all over it" and advertises several  "healthier" meal combos.

Woodruff, who teaches a health and wellness course, said one of the combos contains 70 per cent of Health Canada's recommended daily intake of sodium.

"If you compare it to some of their other options, these are the better choices. I just worry people see this and think they can go to Harvey’s and have a really health meal," said Woodruff, who volunteers for the Heart and Stroke Foundation but does not speak for them.

The ad comes with a $1 coupon for any "Health Check Combo" at Harvey's, which has a restaurant on campus at the university.

Two combos being promoted by Harvey's contain 950 mg and 930 mg of sodium.

Based on Canada Food Guide

The Health Check program is based on the Canada Food Guide and its nutrient recommendations, said Terry Dean, director of the program.

Health Canada, which distributes the food guide, also recommends an average Canadian adult aim to consume 1,500 mg of sodium per day, but no more than 2,300 mg.

Registered dietitian Andrea Dimenna, who works with patients with diabetes and high cholesterol, said the average Canadian currently consumes 3,400 mg of sodium.

High sodium intake can eventually lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke.

"Our sodium intakes are going through the roof," Dimenna said. "There is a goal of trying to reduce our intake to 1,800 mg. If we reach the goal, we would save about $1.4 billion in health-care dollars each year."

In 2005, the Heart and Stroke Foundation touted the trust the general public has in its Health Check Program.

"The Health Check symbol complements mandatory nutrition labelling, in a 2004 research study, 65 per cent of consumers recognized the Health Check logo as meaning the food is 'nutritious,' 'healthy,' 'good for you' or 'approved by the Heart and Stroke Foundation,'" read a media release at that time.

Logo is 'perception of healthy'

Rita St. Pierre is someone who trusts the logo.

"It's a good choice for you to make, for your heart," she said when asked what the logo meant to her. "Because my husband had a heart attack 16 years ago, we've been using it ever since."

The Health Check program began in 1999.

"In one sense, it gives the perception a product is healthy," Woodruff said of the Harvey's campaign."People tend to believe or use their stamp of approval before buying a product."

Dean said Health Check approvals vary between meals sold at grocery stores and what restaurants can offer. An entrée sold at a grocery store is smaller in size and can contain 720 mg of sodium. An entrée sold at a restaurant gets approval if it contains less than 960 mg of sodium.

Dean defended the Harvey's Health Check menu. He said the items on the menu "are much lower in sodium and in fat when compared to other burgers."

"This is one meal you’d consume in a day. We’re trying to get the population down to 2,300 mg [of sodium]. You’re looking at about 40 per cent of your daily intake in one of your meals," he said. "It’s a reasonable amount."

Woodruff said she isn't "harping on the fast food industry."

"I do use fast food," she said. "But I do know what options are available. And I do my research before I go into a restaurant."

Program will evolve

Dean said the program will continue to evolve.

"By today’s standard," he said. "Our numbers are incredibly restrictive."

Restaurants pay a fee to the Heart and Stroke Foundation to be included in the Health Check Program.

Chains with 500 restaurants pay $50 per outlet per year. Chains with 10 outlets or less pay $1,250 per year.

Dean said the money pays for the operation of the not-for-profit program.

CBC Windsor requested an interview with Harvey's, but the request was not immediately met.