Consumer confusion about good, bad fats

Although bombarded with nutrition information, people still don’t know which fats to eat and which to avoid

NEPTUNE, N.J.—When it comes to fat, it’s no wonder people are confused. For two decades, experts vilified fats of any kind, suggesting people eat only low-fat or fat-free foods and beverages to prevent heart disease. Today, however, certain fats are back in favor because of emerging research about heart-health, benefits. But according to a recent survey released by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, people are unsure about the specific benefits of fat, are unable to identify why some fats are better, and are confused and overwhelmed about the different types of fat.

“Although it seems confusing, the real message is simple. To help promote health today and help prevent disease tomorrow, substitute good fats for bad fats,” explained Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of several nutrition books including Food & Mood, Age-Proof Your Body and the most recent, 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman’s Diet. “The key is to learn which foods contain which fats. For example, olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat-the type of fat people should include in moderation in their daily diet.”

Good fats

According to recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s not just the amount of fat in the diet that is linked to disease, it’s the type of fat. Good fats lower the risk of certain diseases, while bad fats increase the risk.

Good fats include monounsaturated fat, which helps lower total cholesterol levels as well as bad cholesterol levels (low-density lipoproteins or LDL cholesterol levels). At the same time, monounsaturated fat helps maintain good cholesterol levels (high-level lipoproteins or HDL cholesterol levels).

Why is this important? Elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood stream can lead to cholesterol buildup inside the arteries. Such buildup narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow, which can lead to chest pain as a result of angina, as well as heart attack and stroke.

Healthful foods that contain monounsaturated fat include olive oil, which actually boasts the highest levels of monounsaturated fat per tablespoon than all other pourable oils including cooking and salad oils. Olive oil also is naturally cholesterol-free and is an excellent source of health-enhancing antioxidants, which makes it an even better choice for people looking to consume good fats for improved heart health.

To help confused consumers identify foods that contain healthful fats, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a qualified health claim linking the consumption of olive oil to a lowered risk of heart disease. Recently approved by the FDA, the claim states that, “Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” The claim soon can be found on olive oil product labels in grocery stores and supermarkets across the country.

Bad fats

Bad fats include saturated fat, which generally is found in animal products such as red meat, whole-milk dairy products such as butter and cheese, and eggs. Saturated fat increases total blood cholesterol levels while also increasing the level of bad cholesterol in the blood stream. This combination can lead to an elevated risk of heart disease and stroke. Experts agree that people should eat foods that contain saturated fat only in moderation.

While people should limit the amount of saturated fat in their diet, most nutrition experts agree that people should completely avoid consuming trans fat.

Trans fat is created by heating liquid oil in the presence of hydrogen so it can better withstand the food production process and extend product shelf life. Subsequently, trans fat is found in many commercially packaged snackfood products such as cookies, crackers and chips as well as in vegetable shortening and margarine.

Why avoid trans fat altogether? Like saturated fat, trans fat increases the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood stream. However, trans fat at the same time lowers the levels of good cholesterol. The combination of increased levels of bad cholesterol and decreased levels of good cholesterol greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Researchers also are looking into a possible link between trans fat and the increased risk of certain types of cancer.

“Much of what’s needed to protect heart health are small changes in lifestyle, such as eating foods that contain good fats while avoiding foods that contain bad fats,” added Somer. “Fortunately, there are foods such as olive oil, which contain good fats, possess wonderful flavor profiles, are extremely versatile, and can be found in any grocery store or supermarket.”

To help people replace bad fats with good fats, Somer specifically suggests, replacing other oils with olive oil when sauteing and stir frying. Or, using olive oil when basting meats, fish, poultry and vegetables for grilling. Somer notes that olive oil can be used as a salad dressing as well as used to replace vegetable oils, butter or margarine in many baked foods.

Established in 1989, the NAOOA is a trade association of marketers, packagers and importers of olive oil in the United States, Canada and their respective suppliers abroad. The association strives to foster a better understanding of olive oil and its taste, versatility and health benefits. For more information about olive oil and the NAOOA, visit

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!