The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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

Effective Communication of Dietary Fats

Effective Communication of Dietary Fats

Shoppers and Trends

December 30, 2007

Effective Communication of Dietary Fats
Fats are a mystery to consumers, says a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) report. Based on focus group research conducted in June 2007, the report found that while many consumers recognize common fats labeling and ingredient terms, many are unclear as to which fats to eat more or less often. As a result, they may continue to make less healthy choices.
In conducting the study, IFIC learned that the language used to communicate information about dietary fats is unclear. Even with the abundance of nutritional information available online, consumers are struggling to decipher the messages they are receiving – especially when some of the messages may be confusing or likely, inaccurate.
“There is a real breakdown in communication when it comes to consumers understanding fats. When consumers can’t identify which fats are more or less healthful in general, then they usually cannot identify them in food sources either,” says Shelley Goldberg, MPH, RD, Senior Director of Nutrition Communications for International Food Information Council. “When consumers hear the message that fats are bad, this message radiates to all other fats, even the fats that are healthful.”
Certainly the perception of fats as “bad” is a feeling held my most respondents. In fact, the 2007 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey has been trending consumer attitudes toward fats for a couple of years and the findings are very illuminating. Concern with the amount of fat consumed is on the rise, up 6% from 2006. Awareness of certain types of fats, like trans fats, is up from 2006 too. Yet the awareness of other fats, like polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, is down significantly.
Likely, this decrease in the awareness of some of the healthier fats is related to the knowledge gap in perception about the health risks of fats. While most respondents understand the health risks of saturated fats, most are uncertain about the healthfulness of polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. And though many respondents say they are concerned about “types of fat,” when they are asked about mono and polyunsaturated fats, over half say that they are “neither healthful nor unhealthful.”
When asked about the perceived healthfulness of specific oils, a majority of respondents correctly identify olive and canola oils to be healthful. In addition, those identifying corn oils as healthful decreased significantly. However, a whopping 37% of respondents said they were unaware of how healthy or unhealthy palm oil actually is. Also, more than a third of respondents incorrectly perceive monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to be unhealthy.
Interestingly, even with a lack of awareness about the healthy or unhealthy aspects of fats, reported consumption of tropical oils is down significantly since 2006 ­– by 12%. Reported consumption of vegetable oils is up 8%. Meanwhile, the number of people saying they are consuming less saturated fat rose by 23% to 70%, and those consuming less trans fat rose 21% to 75%. But strangely, the number of people who say they are consuming less polyunsaturated fats rose as well, up 9% to 42%.
To make matters even more complex, consumers seem to have issues of mistrust surrounding the information that they are getting on food packages. Many feel that if things like trans fats are removed, that they will be replaced with other, less than healthy fats. Others express skepticism about the taste of items made to be lower in fat content.
“The message has always been that fats are bad, and so positive messages, in the context of these negative messages, are not getting out to consumers,” says Goldberg.
Still, there is one silver lining. When respondents were given a one-page handout describing the types of fat and their food sources, consumer confidence, and their understanding of the different types of fats, greatly improved. Better education practices and clear messaging in this area seem to be the keys toward successfully conveying the healthful or unhealthful qualities of fats.
“Often, we find ourselves talking about the fats that should be consumed less often without talking about the fats that should be consumed more often,” says Goldberg. “Through our research we’ve found that leading with a positive message really helps consumers with their understanding of fats. Another helpful tool is emphasizing the ‘un’ in healthier fats like mono and polyunsaturated fats.”
Ultimately, Goldberg says, we really need to come at this conversation from more of a dietary guidelines perspective, looking at total diet and its effect on health – as dietary fats are just one part of a much larger picture.
“We need to focus on portion size and getting all the different foods necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. These are the bigger issues,” she adds.
If you are interested in developing educational materials for your consumers with the IFIC, please contact them at For more information on dietary fats, please visit the IFIC website at: