The message drummed into America's health consciousness has been to cut back on fat in the diet. There's little question that this is a positive move. But along with the message, unsaturated fats are mistakenly given a clean slate while saturates shoulder the burden of being the problem child in the fat family.
Despite a need to change the resulting good-fat/bad-fat approach, it remains a fixture in most nutrition education programs. As a result, consumers are subjected to a barrage of mistaken or conflicting advice.
For these reasons, it was refreshing to hear the comments of Dr. Scott Grundy, a respected voice in the health field. At the recent annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, Dr. Grundy, director of the prestigious Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, reviewed the scientific evidence and spoke of the need to confront the common misconceptions about fats and health.
Dr. Grundy, who served on the National Cholesterol Education Program, agreed that while there's a need to cut back on total fats, the present method of labeling good fats and bad fats misses the mark.
Certain saturated fats, such as the medium-chain saturates found in coconut and palm kernel oil, have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol. These fats, when consumed, get used for energy rather than increasing the level of cholesterol-laden lipoproteins in the blood.
Another common saturated fat, stearic acid, which is found in cocoa butter and other foods, has also shown little effect on the blood cholesterol level.
Polyunsaturated fats, found in soy, corn and safflower oils, once sought for their cholesterol-reducing ability, have now been associated with undesirable side effects such as suppression of the immune system, increased risk of cancer and gallstone formation.
Trans fatty acids, the unsaturated fats found in margarines and other products made with partially hydrogenated oils, were found to raise blood cholesterol, according to a landmark study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was Dr. Grundy who wrote an accompanying editorial that counseled patients at risk for heart disease to limit their intake of these fats.
But despite these findings people continue to use margarine liberally -- often at the encouragement of their health professional -- in the mistaken belief that it's better for health.
About the only category of fats that has continually received a clean bill of health is the monounsaturates -- those found in olive, canola and most nut oils.
With the fat family in apparent disarray, it's vital for health authorities to develop a consistent message based on the latest scientific findings. A logical next step would be to devise educational programs that give useful information rather than frustrate.
In his talk, Dr. Grundy recommended we reclassify fats by their health effects, such as whether they raise blood cholesterol, rather than relying on the unreliable saturated/unsaturated typecasting. Such an approach would be welcome, as it could shift the focus away from the stigma of saturation and on to how a fat acts in the body.
It was important for the food industry to hear these remarks, as these are the people who decide which fats will be put in processed foods.
The symposium was also timely in that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is presently working on designs for the new nutrition label. At present, there's little doubt the old format of listing total fat will be changed. What's at issue is how fats will be listed. Unfortunately, it now appears as though fats will be put into categories according to their degree of saturation. That's progress for you.
Consumers should be more concerned with the total, rather than the specific types of fat in their diet. Whenever possible, avoid partially hydrogenated fats and rely more on the monounsaturates. But if one is restricting total intake, even the effect these steps might have will be limited.
Ed Blonz is a Ph.D. nutritionist based in Berkeley, Calif.