The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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

Fat Awareness

Fat Awareness

Shoppers and Trends

March 29, 2009

A majority of consumers (92%) are aware oftrans fat, according to a new study from the American Heart Association. The study, which talked to 2,000 respondents in a two-part survey, found that knowledge of transfat grew by a significant eight percent between 2006 and 2007 – reaching levels closer to those achieved by saturated fat in prior studies.

The AHA study interviewed consumers before and after the launch of the AHA’s April 2007 “Face the Fats” national consumer education campaign, using the campaign as a guide in tracking awareness of fats and oils and their perceived relationships to heart health.

Sixty-two percent of participants reported concern with both the amount and types of fat they consume, up from 55% (for amount) and 52% (for types) the year prior. Perceptions that certain fats and oils heighten the risk of heart disease increased by 10% for trans fat (up to 73% in 2007, as compared to 63% in 2006) and by four percent for saturated fat (up to 77% in 2007 from 73% in 2006).

Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition at Tufts University, partially attributes this rise in awareness to the wide range of messages that have become available in recent years regarding trans fat and the increased advertising of trans fat free foods. In fact, news coverage of trans fat doubled between 2006 and 2007.

Public policy changes have also had an affect on consumer fat awareness. In January 2006, the FDA instituted a requirement to list trans fat content as a separate item on the Nutrition Facts label on packaged food – a move that motivated numerous manufacturers to accelerate food product reformulation on a voluntary basis. Along those same lines, many cities and counties have been inspired to adopt regulations to restrict trans fat use in restaurants.

In spite of all this increased awareness, however, knowledge about food sources oftrans and saturated fat remains low, says Lichtenstein. Close to half (46%) of those surveyed could not name any sources of trans fat without a list or label. One-third could not name any sources of saturated fat.

When presented with food sources, consumers still remain confused. More people incorrectly identified lard as a source of trans fat in 2007 (40%, up from 35% in 2006); more than two-thirds incorrectly identified French fries and donuts as a source of saturated fat.

“It’s important for the consumer to have a general idea of what foods have trans and saturated fat, as well as unsaturated fat. We want the consumer to be able to make informed choices, even when a particular food doesn’t have a label,” she says. “The consumer still doesn’t always understand that monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are beneficial when it comes to heart disease.”

In spite of the lack of specific fat knowledge, consumer behavior is improving at the store level. Thirty-seven percent of respondents reported changing their shopping behaviors, some by buying food products specifically because they donned a “zerotrans fat” label. Significantly more consumers (53%) looked for trans fat in 2007, an increase of nine percent from 2006. Fifty percent reported looking for saturated fat in 2007, up from 47% in 2006.

“We can see that self-reported behavior is going in the right direction. Retailers can help by continuing to provide clear labeling and consistent messages. We should be encouraging the consumer to make healthier choices,” says Lichtenstein.

Trans fat can occur naturally in small amounts in foods such as milk and beef, along with saturated fat, but the major source of trans fat in the U.S. diet is from partially hydrogenated fat. The hydrogenation process, which transforms liquid oils to solid cooking fats, structurally changes the fat in a way that increases “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used to make many cookies, crackers, cakes, French fries, fried onion rings and donuts. The main sources of saturated fat are foods containing animal fats, like meat, whole milk, cream, whole-milk cheeses, butter and lard, and tropical oils, like palm and coconut oils.

The American Heart Association recommends that consumers limit their trans fat intake to less than one percent of total daily energy. They also recommend limits on saturated fat, at less than seven percent of total daily energy.