Friendly Fats: Are Americans wising up?

The 2015 Food & Health Survey is hot off the presses and has yielded some surprising results on dietary fats.

3 in 10 Americans have recently changed their opinion about the healthfulness of saturated fat (31%).fat-types

We followed up with that 31% to better understand how their opinion had changed. 77% of those who changed their mind told us they view saturated fat as less healthful than they used. The remaining 23% said they believe it to be more healthful than they used to. Current dietary guidance says to keep intake of saturated fats to less than 10% of your total calories. Researchers are continuing to debate and study evidence for and against the impact of saturated fat on health.

Another topic in the fats world attracting attention is trans fat. It’s logical to assume that consumers have heard messages about trans fat in the past decade. They’ve heard to keep the consumption of foods containing trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils to a minimum. Consumers have been listening and having less trans fat in their diet thanks to a triple threat. Since the 1990’s, there has been emerging science on the health effects of trans fat, product reformulation to remove trans fats, and Nutrition Facts labeling of trans fat in 2006. In fact, between 2003 and 2010, the FDA estimates that consumption of trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils decreased from 4.6 to 1.3 grams per day. That’s a 72% reduction! More recent FDA estimates have our consumption down to 1.0 grams per day. Great news, right?

With consumption down so sharply, it’s somewhat surprising that 18% of Americans say they’re “unaware” of the healthfulness of trans fats. Here’s an even more surprising nugget from this year’s survey: more people ranked trans fat as healthful (11%) than saturated fat (8%). 

Clearly dietary fats are difficult for consumers to understand. Consumers recognize that omega fatty acids are good for us, but that seems to be about as far as the fats knowledge goes. We saw more evidence of this gap between knowledge of omega fatty acids and other fats. More than half of people in our survey rated omega (3, 6 and 9) fatty acids as healthful. Yet, only 31% rated unsaturated fat as healthful. Would they be surprised that omega (3, 6 and 9) fatty acids are unsaturated fats? (3s and 6s are polyunsaturated and 9s are monounsaturated).

But it’s not just consumers who struggle with dietary fats. It can be a difficult subject even for health professionals—myself included!—to understand and communicate. We’ve all heard advice to avoid eating fat for decades. That advice didn’t allow for proper education about beneficial types of fat that you should consume as part of a healthful diet. It’s yet another case where a short soundbite about avoidance trumps reasonable inclusive diet guidance.

So, how about we make a new fats catch-phrase catch on? “Fats are like fonts, it’s the type that matters most.” Pass it on, fellow nutrition lovers!