Reducing dietary fat is a major dietary goal for many consumers. With encouragement from health groups and government agencies, the public continues to choose foods and beverages naturally low in fat, as well as the fast-growing array of prepared reduced-fat and non-fat foods and beverages. The development and use of a wide variety of ingredients known as fat replacers are making many of these light products possible.
What is Fat?
Fat, like protein and carbohydrate, is a principal and essential component of the diet. Fat is the body’s most concentrated source of energy. Some dietary fat is vital to enable the body to function properly. Fat is responsible for transporting “fat-soluble” vitamins A, D, E and K.
Dietary fats also are a source of fatty acids, including essential fatty acids which are necessary to assure good health. Essential fatty acids must be obtained from dietary sources (primarily vegetable oils) because the body cannot make them.
Fatty acids are separated by their structure as either saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Although naturally occurring fats in food are a mixture of many different fatty acids, fats can be characterized by their origin:
Saturated fats are mainly found in foods of animal origin. These include the fats in whole milk, cream, cheese, butter, meat and poultry. Saturated fats also can be found in large amounts in some vegetable products, such as cocoa butter, coconut oil and palm oil. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fats are found primarily in plants, but also are found in animals. Olive, peanut and canola oil are common examples of fats high in monounsaturated fatty acids. Also, most margarines and hydrogenated vegetable shortenings tend to be high in monounsaturated fatty acids. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in plants. Sunflower, corn, soybean, cotton seed and safflower oils are vegetable fats that contain a relatively high proportion of polyunsaturated fats. Margarines with vegetable oil as the primary ingredient, and some fish, also are sources of polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats usually are liquid at room temperature.
SOURCES OF FAT IN THE FOOD SUPPLY
Fat is found at some level in most foods. The following chart from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates the major sources of fat in the U.S. food supply.
Food Group % of Total Fat in Food Supply
Meat, poultry and fish 30
Grain products 25
Milk and milk products 18
Fats and Oils (mainly tablespreads and salad dressings) 11
Why Reduce Fat Intake?
Most consumers enjoy the taste, texture and aroma fat gives to foods. At nine calories per gram, fat is the most concentrated source of calories in the diet; protein and carbohydrates contribute approximately four calories per gram.
Fat consumption among Americans is estimated at 34 percent of total caloric intake. This level of fat intake is considered too high by many public health organizations, which have agreed that 30 percent or less of total calories should be derived from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat.
The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health states: “High intake of total dietary fat is associated with increased risk for obesity, some types of cancer, and possibly gallbladder disease. Epidemiologic, clinical, and animal studies provide strong and consistent evidence for the relationship between saturated fat intake, high blood cholesterol, and increased risk for coronary heart disease. Excessive saturated fat consumption is the major dietary contributor to total blood cholesterol levels.”
In addition to the Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences, American Heart Association, National Cholesterol Education Program, American Cancer Society, American Dietetic Association, National Institutes of Health, USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services are among the many health and government authorities that advocate reduction of dietary fat for most consumers. Generally, these groups recommend that even healthy consumers would benefit from reducing fat to no more than 30 percent of total calories.
For certain population subgroups (e.g., children two years old and younger and the elderly) fat reduction may not be appropriate. For others, such as persons with serum cholesterol in the “high risk” category, further dietary fat reduction may be necessary.
Consumers Demand Low-Fat Options
Considering an average consumption of 34 percent of calories from fat, decreasing intake to 30 percent may not seem a monumental task. However, for many people it is exceedingly difficult. To meet this dietary goal, people need to significantly modify their diets – e.g., choose leaner meats, skin poultry and fish, select low-fat/non-fat dairy products and dressings, and limit fried foods. Of course, consumers’ strong desire for high-fat foods makes this difficult. In fact, diet and obesity experts have found that consumers have difficulty maintaining diets once their fat consumption dips below 30 percent of total calories.
Nevertheless, millions of consumers are trying to change their “high-fat” ways. A national survey conducted in 2000 by Booth Research Services for the Calorie Control Council revealed 188 million adult Americans (88 percent of the adult U.S. population) consume low- or reduced-fat foods and beverages. Another Council survey shows that two-thirds of adults believe there is a need for food ingredients which can replace the fat in food products. According to Prepared Foods, more than 2,000 new low- or reduced-fat products have been introduced since 1997.
The food industry has responded to consumer demand by offering an ever-increasing variety of low-fat eating choices. These rich, creamy reduced-fat foods are the result of various new, and existing, food technologies used to replace some or most of the fat without sacrificing the taste and texture consumers desire. Some of the more traditional examples include: replacing whole milk with skim milk in “ice creams,” using leaner meats in frozen entrees, baking snack foods instead of frying and replacing the fat in some products with water or air.