The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Consumer Knowledge About Dietary Fats

Consumer Knowledge About Dietary Fats

Shoppers and Trends

April 25, 2010

Consumers are confused about what role dietary fats play in their diets, according to researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The study looked at 1,798 respondents to find out what they knew about six common dietary fats.

Disparity among U.S. consumers was wide in both the prevalence of awareness and understanding of fats. While almost all of adults had heard of saturated fat (95%) and 55% had heard of polyunsaturated fat, awareness of other fats was lower. Consumers with a college education or higher were more likely to be aware of all fats except for saturated fats. Minority consumers were less likely to be aware of all six fats compared to their white counterparts. Women had a higher awareness than men of trans fat, n-3 fatty acids and mono and polyunsaturated fats. 

When it comes to understanding how fats work in the body, knowledge was even more divided. A large percentage of respondents recognized that saturated fat could raise the risk of heart disease, but the number of those recognizing the risk-raising effect of trans fat and partially hydrogenated oil was much lower. Just half of those having heard of n-3 fatty acids understood that those fats can lower the risk of heart disease. 

Interestingly, having heard of a fat did not necessarily mean understanding its relationship to heart disease. (While trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils raise the risk of heart disease, n-3 fatty acids and mono and polyunsaturated fats lower the risk.) Still, education stood out as the leading predictor for understanding fats. College educated consumers were more likely than consumers without college education to understand the relationships between all six fats and the risk of heart disease. Age and regional differences had no affect.

Dr. Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says that nutrition education and knowledge are key to making healthy food choices. Additionally, she points out that it is particularly important that we improve nutrition education on dietary fats for minority groups and the less educated because of the ethnic and education level disparities in heart disease.

“Educational programs that promote a better understanding of the different types of dietary fat will improve consumers awareness, food choices made, and in turn, hopefully their individual health,” says Gazzaniga-Moloo. “Dietary fats are an important component of our diet. Numerous studies have demonstrated the connection between consumption of the different types of fats and health or ill health.”

Increased understanding of how fats relate to diet can also help consumers improve their use of labels – as many products carry labels boasting their low saturated fat ortrans fat free content. However, few products advertize their mono and polyunsaturated fat content, and some products list them next to saturated andtrans fats on the label. Many consumers cannot distinguish between different types of fats, so these labels are not as helpful as they could be.

“Rather than revamping food labels, there should be more education on teaching people how to read food labels and apply that information to their every day living,” says Gazzaniga-Moloo. 

Strong evidence of consumer confusion in this study points to a need for improved communication and education on the topic of dietary fat. It is clear that education is a key component in better understanding the relationships between fats and the risk of heart disease, especially since the awareness of fats – which most consumers had – does not automatically translate into understanding. 

“Retailers can help by making foods with healthier fats more accessible, especially to nonwhite adults and people with lower education levels, and by promoting the food label as a source of nutrition information,” adds Gazzaniga-Moloo.