Focus on Health: Happy World Heart Day

July 27, 2011
Here's what Unilever and PepsiCo are doing to improve heart health globally.

What are you doing to commemorate World Heart Day?

It's not as widely celebrated as Christmas or even Earth Day, but World Heart Day will be more or less honored this year on September 29 with health checks, fitness events and public talks. Previously a floating holiday – the last Sunday of September – the World Heart Federation ( will stick with Sept. 29, whatever day of the week that is, going forward.

World Heart Day was created in 2000 to inform people around the globe that heart disease and stroke are the world's leading cause of death, claiming 17.1 million lives each year. Also that at least 80 percent of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke could be avoided if the main risk factors -- tobacco, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity -- are controlled.

The World Heart Federation is made up mostly of national health foundations or societies, although (the Canola Council of Canada) and Unilever are listed as global supporters.

In 2009, Unilever and the World Heart Federation announced a joint initiative to promote awareness of Heart Age – then a new method of expressing an individual's risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Heart Age, a mathematical scoring system based on the Framingham Risk Score, uses standard risk factors for heart disease or stroke (such as age, weight, gender, cholesterol, blood pressure and smoking) to estimate a person's "heart age," which could be higher than your chronological age if your personal cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors are high.

At the launch, Unilever unveiled a report, "What If People's Hearts Stayed Young?" which theorized the reduction of heart attacks and strokes ("CVD events") over the next decade if people were able to reduce their heart age by three years. Research indicated CVD events could be reduced over 10 years by an estimated 216,000 in the U.K., and 1 million in the U.S. The modeling further calculates that if everyone – not just those with elevated Heart Ages – managed to keep their heart age as young as their chronological age, the predicted number of CVD events over 10 years could be reduced by 986,000 in the UK and 5 million in the U.S.

Unilever built on the concept of Heart Age and developed an online tool to enable people to find out their own Heart Age and for health professionals to better engage their patients in heart health. See

After piloting the Heart Age Tool in 18 countries, Unilever has developed it further, adding a tailored heart health plan to guide and motivate people to make lifelong changes to their diet and lifestyle that can help reduce their personal cardiovascular disease risk factors.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman says the company will track and share future information by publishing data at regular intervals for the benefit of the wider heart health community. "We are excited by the potential for Heart Age, combined with our consumer-friendly Heart Age Tool, to make a real difference in motivating people to look after their heart," he says.

The Heart Age Tool and heart health in general play big roles in Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched this past November. The nutrition-specific goals are outlined at

"Using globally recognized dietary guidelines … by 2020 we will double the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, helping hundreds of millions of people achieve a healthier diet," says the plan. Some of the bullet points:

  • Improving heart health: "By 2020 we aim to motivate 100 million people to take our Heart Age test with our Flora and Becel brands," says the Sustainable Living Plan.
  • Reducing salt levels: "We are making reductions of up to 25 percent across our portfolio to meet an interim target of 6g of salt per day by the end of 2010. We will then continue with another 15 to 20 percent in gradual reductions."
  • Reducing saturated fat: "We are committed to improving the fat composition of our products by reducing saturated fat as much as possible and increasing levels of essential fats."
  • Removing trans fat: "By 2012 we will have removed from all our products any trans fat originating from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil."

PepsiCo Inc. also has been supportive of World Heart Day and the World Heart Federation, especially since George Mensah joined the company in 2009 as director of heart health and global health policy (his new title is vice president of global nutrition). A cardiologist, he spent the nine years before PepsiCo at the Centers for Disease Control

"At PepsiCo, we can make a difference in reducing heart disease in populations around the world," says a spokesperson. "In June 2010, we participated in the World Congress of Cardiology, where we held a series of meetings with leading scientists and public health experts to discuss the latest scientific research into cardiovascular disease, the role the food industry can play in promoting heart health, and how to utilize multi-sector partnerships to achieve change within the food industry, governments and populations."

Among actions that PepsiCo is taking to help reduce the risk of heart disease around the globe:

  • Reducing sodium: "PepsiCo has committed to reduce the average sodium per serving in key global food brands in key markets by 25 percent by 2015," says the spokesperson. The company is working in three areas to reduce sodium in potato chips: Creating lightly salted versions of some of its most popular brands; reducing sodium in seasoned potato chips; and reducing sodium in unseasoned potato chips. In England, between 2003 and 2008, PepsiCo reduced salt levels by between 25 and 55 percent across its Walkers portfolio, removing 2,400 tons of salt from the British diet. More recently, it developed lightly salted versions of Lay's and Ruffles potato chips, Fritos corn chips and Rold Gold Tiny Twist Pretzels. Each has 50 percent less sodium than the original version of the chips. Read more about what PepsiCo is doing in our article Salt Pinches Back
  • Replacing saturated fats with healthy oils: "PepsiCo has committed to reducing the average amount of saturated fat per serving in key global food brands in key countries by 15 percent by 2020. In India, for example, we're using blended rice bran oil, which has led to a 40 percent decrease in saturated fat in leading products. (The spokesperson listed similar progress in China, Russia and Brazil.) In the U.S., the Frito-Lay unit switched to sunflower oil and reduced the saturated fat content by more than 50 percent in our Lay's and Ruffles potato chips."
  • Enhancing healthy ingredients such as fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables: Last year, PepsiCo formed a new business unit, called the Global Nutrition Group, which is focused on delivering breakthrough innovation in the areas of fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and functional nutrition to deliver nutritious products around the globe. In 2010, the Quaker division contributed nearly 500 million lbs. of whole grains to the American diet.

PepsiCo's chairman and CEO, Indra Nooyi, is a native of India – and that's a country that has global health professionals concerned.

"Did you know that over the next 15 years, more than half of the heart disease cases in the world will come from India?" asked the spokesperson. China is another country with this growing problem.

PepsiCo Quaker Oats unit launched a social program in India in 2009 to improve heart health. The program, Good Morning Heart, includes events to educate people on the role of healthy diet, including the consumption of oats, in preventing cardiovascular disease.

"PepsiCo understands that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the world," the spokesperson concluded. "World Heart Day gives us the chance to talk about the risks of heart disease and demonstrate our interest in actively working with global and local partners to help contribute to reducing the risk.

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