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Nutrition Facts About Fat

March 11, 2008

4 Min Read
Nutrition Facts About Fat

Product formulas don’t flash like a car’s dashboard light indicating it is time for an oil change. However, the Nutrition Facts label contains information that might suggest it’s time to adjust a food’s lipid profile.

The chemical group “lipid” refers to a range of lipophilic molecules, including fat and oil ingredients, which are almost always long-chain triacylglycerols, (a glycerol backbone with three fatty acids attached to it by esterification), as well as cholesterol, phospholipids, steroids, waxes and others. FDA requires food manufacturers to quantify, on a per serving basis, select lipids in a food: total fat, which must further be broken down into saturated fat and trans fat, and cholesterol. It is optional to quantify polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat contents under total fat.

In addition to the Nutrition Facts label, some FDA-sanctioned health claims require a limit on the amount of total and/or saturated fat if the claim is to be made on a food product. While that might be obvious in a claim linking “Dietary Saturated Fat and Cholesterol and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease” (Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 101.75), it also plays a factor in other claims that discuss effects on heart disease and stroke: “Fruits, Vegetables and Grain Products that Contain Fiber, Particularly Soluble Fiber, and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease” (21 CFR 101.77); “Soluble Fiber from Certain Foods and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease” (21 CFR 101.810); “Soy Protein and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease” (21 CFR 101.82); “Plant Sterol/Stanol Esters and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease” (21 CFR 101.83); and “Potassium and the Risk of High Blood Pressure and Stroke” (Docket No. 00Q-1582). All of these must be low in saturated fat, meaning they must meet the criteria or they will be disqualified: On a per-serving basis, individual foods must have less than 4 grams of saturated fats (6 grams for main dishes, or 8 grams for meal products).

Nutrition unfacts

Technically, the labeling terminology on the Nutrition Facts and in the rules for the health claims is inaccurate, as triacylglycerols contain three fatty acids, and those three fatty acids are seldom the same, regardless if the triacylglycerol comes from a plant or animal. One fatty acid may be saturated (no double bonds). While the other two might be unsaturated (one or more double bonds). If the triacylglycerol has undergone partial hydrogenation, one or both of the unsaturated fatty acids may now be in the trans configuration, rather than in the traditional cis configuration.

In other words, fat and oil ingredients contain a mixture of fatty acids, some saturated, others unsaturated. Of the latter, some contain one double bond and are referred to as monounsaturated, while others have two or more double bonds and are appropriately called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Thus, the Nutrition Facts should more accurately read as saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids. Unfortunately, this inaccuracy has consumers and industry misusing the terms. While that’s not all bad when it’s knowingly used as shorthand, it does result in consumer confusion and some unfair labeling of “good” and “bad” fat sources. That becomes more of an issue as growers and manufacturers manipulate products’ fatty-acid profiles to optimize healthfulness and functionality.

Changing consumer habits

More consumers than ever are reading the Nutrition Facts, as well as ingredient legends. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C., 66% of consumers use the Nutrition Facts when deciding to use or purchase a food--up from 58% a year ago. Fifty-nine percent use the ingredient legend, which is up 2%.

When it comes to fats, consumers know what they don’t want in their foods. According to data collected in 2007 by the United Soybean Board (USB), St. Louis, 91% of consumers view trans fatty acids as somewhat to very unhealthy. Furthermore, when comparing saturated and trans fatty acids, substantially more consumers perceive saturates as healthier (42%). Three-quarters of consumers consider trans as very unhealthy, a significant increase from 2006 (63%).

Consumers also know what they do want. According to a survey released in May 2007 by Flax Canada 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 80% of 1,199 U.S. consumers ages 35 to 65 said they would switch to omega-3-fortified foods if they were available at the supermarket without additional cost.

This all presents dilemmas, as well as the associated opportunities, to the food industry. The shift away from trans fatty acids has again focused the nutritional spotlight on the fats and oils used in today’s food products.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].



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