Saturated fat in the spotlight

1 Jan 2020

Saturated fat may not be as unhealthy as previously thought, but could that message do more harm than good?

Over the past few years, researchers increasingly have called into question the idea that saturated fat is categorically bad for heart health. A recent review of 21 studies found insufficient evidence to link saturated fat with increased risk of cardiovascular disease – although replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat was still linked with lower risk. Other major studies have found replacing saturated fat with high-fibre carbohydrates could also cut cardiovascular disease risk, but replacing it with refined carbohydrates may have the opposite effect.

Saturated fat in the spotlight
Consumers have rediscovered fats - but dietary guidelines have not changed

While researchers gradually figure out how saturated fat interacts with other dietary components, consumers generally have accepted a more simplistic message: saturated fat used to be bad for health, but now it’s fine. Many have increased fat consumption – not just fats rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, but also saturated fats, and animal fats in particular. Traditional fats like butter and lard are experiencing a resurgence, while more exotic fats like coconut oil have found a foothold in western markets.

In regions where consumers are rediscovering such fats, like Europe and North America, most people consume too many calories. And whereas carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram, fat contributes nine, meaning that a simple switch from one macronutrient for another would lead to higher calorie density – more calories in the same volume of food. The satiating effect of fat could help counter some of those extra calories, but people don’t always stop eating when they are full.

Despite heightened debate about the role of saturated fat in a healthy diet, it is important to remember that dietary guidelines – based on the most recent scientific developments – have not changed. The UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), for instance, found the latest research “supports and strengthens” its previous recommendation: consumers are still advised to limit saturated fat to no more than 10% of calories – and most far exceed this limit.

Meanwhile, suppliers continue to innovate to cut saturated fat in their ingredients. ADM, Cargill and Bunge are among those that provide high oleic vegetable oils that are higher in monounsaturated fats than other oils. They are not lower in calories than other oils, but do allow manufacturers to slash saturated fat – and are useful for industrial goods as they have better heat stability and are less prone to oxidation than traditional vegetable oils. Cargill, for example, released a high oleic canola oil in January 2018 that it says can cut the saturated fat content in finished products by 35% compared to ordinary canola oil.

However, the ‘saturated fat isn’t so bad’ message has led many manufacturers to leverage the naturalness and flavour of fats like butter as a selling point for their products, and same is likely to be true for those that contain coconut oil. That said, vegetable oils are far cheaper, giving them a major advantage in manufactured foods.

One thing is clear: low fat diets appear to be a thing of the past. Consumers have become more adventurous regarding fats in general, with many health conscious shoppers favouring speciality fats or oils, particularly those with added health or flavour benefits, from sources like avocado, sesame, flax, nuts and hemp. For food manufacturers, although the focus has shifted from low fat to healthier fats, many consumers are still looking to cut calories, meaning there is a delicate balance to strike.