Prompted by public health campaigns and changes to product recipes, consumers have become more aware of the difference between bad and good fats, with the latter linked to improved blood cholesterol and reducing diabetes. Some in the industry, however, believe consumers can be confused by the wave of information from different stakeholders.

The fact that increasingly the terms ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’ are used to distinguish trans fat and saturated fat from other fats arguably reflects how fat reformulation has become a rather more nuanced issue than it once was.

Fat reformulation by food companies in markets such as the UK, other European countries, Australia and the US broadly falls into two categories. First, there are the background reductions made to fat levels, and specifically to trans fat and saturated fat levels, which may or may not be overtly communicated to the consumer.

Secondly, there has been considerable reformulation, either involving total fat reduction or switching from bad to good fats, to create better-for-you products, which are marketed as such, and are targeted at particular consumer groups. 

As mentioned earlier, the primary trend has been the greater focus that companies, public health agencies and increasingly consumers are paying to the differences between fats and moderating fat composition to favour healthier fats.

Trans fats

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Trans fats are created by partially hydrogenated vegetable oil which has been used in processed foods, such as margarine, cakes, pies, biscuits, certain vegetable oils, chocolate and other confectionery, ice cream and ready meals, for many years. 

The medical evidence for the health risks associated with trans fats are now generally viewed as incontrovertible but to date only Denmark has banned food products containing more than the trace amounts of trans fat that are present naturally in some foods, and it did so as early as 2003. 

While public health advice in the UK has emphasised the dangers of trans fats for some years, an outright ban has not been deemed necessary. Some city authorities and one state in the US have enacted trans fat bans in restaurants, but no federal regulation has yet been framed.

That said, voluntary industry action by food companies has been effective at achieving substantial reductions in trans fat intake in many markets. For example, according to UK Department of Health data, today average consumption is about half the recommended maximum intake.

Nevertheless, campaigners still point to significant unchecked trans fat use in food production. According to UK campaign group tfX, trans fats remain “common ingredients in thousands of food products” in the UK. 

However, even tfX pays tribute to the action taken by UK food producers and retailers which it says “has greatly reduced the volume of trans fat in our diets”. But, as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is still being used in some areas of the food manufacturing and fast food sectors, tfX is among the groups advocating a mandatory upper limit on trans fat content as enacted in Denmark.

US health campaign group Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates that trans fat intake has declined in the US by more than 50% since 2005 and acknowledges the role industry has played in this. However, CSPI is still pushing for regulatory limits on trans fats and estimates that trans fat intake in the US is still costing some 50,000 lives a year.

Saturated fat

Saturated fat, which comes principally from animal sources, has been shown to increase blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and is linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Fats containing a high proportion of saturated fat are generally solid at room temperature, a factor strongly linked to their functionality in certain food categories such as cakes, which partly explains why the reduction of saturated fat has proved more of a challenge in certain food categories.

In general, progress on the replacement of saturated fat has been slower than that made on trans fat and there has been a substantial divergence in the rate of progress between different food categories, which can be attributed both to particular technical challenges created by the functional role fat plays in food production and to food companies’ qualms over consumer acceptance of reformulated products.

Good fats

There are two principal types of what might be termed healthier fats. Monounsaturated fat improves blood cholesterol levels and has been linked with lower incidence of heart disease. Research also shows that MUFAs may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.

Polyunsaturated fat comes mostly from plant-based sources. It has also been shown to  improve blood cholesterol levels, decreasing risk of heart disease, and may also help to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Critically, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil, peanut oil and corn oil, are liquid at room temperature.

In addition to the minimisation or elimination of trans fats and reduction in saturated fats, latterly there has been a growing emphasis on the addition of healthier fats to food as a positive ‘functional’ ingredient, with Omega-3s the most notable example. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats, are found in fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, ground flaxseed, flax oil and walnuts. They have been proven to  be particularly heart-healthy while having other positive health attributes.

Products fortified with additional Omega-3 fatty acids have proved particularly popular in the spreads and dairy sectors, and the addition of these fats has gone hand in hand with other aspects of fat reformulation in those categories. 

Consumer perceptions about good and bad fats

Along with public health campaigns, the industry’s efforts in informing consumers about saturated fat, both on-pack and through other forms of commercial communication, can be said to have contributed to some increased consumer awareness about the risks of saturated fat and the differences between good and bad fat.

Leendert Wesdorp, vice president research and development for spreads and dressings at Unilever, believes the clear labelling about the good fats in Unilever’s spread brands, such as Flora, are helping to raise consumer awareness. “Consumers are ever-increasingly interested in learning about how certain foods can help improve their health. Our products provide consumers with clear labelling on which types of good fats our products contain,” he tells just-food. 

However, Wesdorp believes there is still much consumer ignorance about the differences between fats and in spite of being more interested in health and nutrition than they were consumers are being confused by an “ever-increasing supply of conflicting information” leaving them with misinformed views. “Research indicates that consumers do not understand the difference between good and bad fats,” he says.  

As with so many diet and health issues, there are socio-economic factors here. While there are signs that some consumers in developed markets are getting the message on diet-related health risks, there remains a substantial proportion of the population which remains ignorant of risks and whose behaviour remains unchecked. At-risk consumers tend to be in lower earning groups and unhealthy foods tend to be cheaper. This problem is undoubtedly relevant both to trans fat and saturated fat intake.

The industry’s reformulation efforts and the varied progress on fat reformulation across various food sectors are examined in the following two sections of this briefing.