The Good Fats Lingo
Posted by , MS, RD, CDE

Woman reading food label

Consumers are still confused about the good fats lingo. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2016 Food and Health Survey, 67% of consumers agree that omega-3 fatty acids are healthful. But only 27% of consumers say that unsaturated fats are good for the body.[i] That’s an awful large percentage of people who do not understand that omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat. In a separate question, only 11% of consumers say they try to avoid omega-6 fats, but 30% say they try to avoid unsaturated fats.

From this survey and my own discussions with patients and clients, it seems that consumers do not know that all omega fats are unsaturated fatty acids. Further, they are unaware that replacing saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated[ii] and polyunsaturated fats[iii] improves cardiovascular risk.

I suspect that part of the confusion is with food labels. The Nutrition Facts panel doesn’t identify unsaturated fats as omega-3, -6 or -9. In fact, the Nutrition Facts panel frequently omits unsaturated fats completely. To help my clients, I remind them to limit their intakes of saturated and trans fats. That part is easy to understand because they are clearly identified on the Nutrition Facts panel. Then I explain that the amount left from the total fat after subtracting the saturated and trans fats is all omega unsaturated fats – all good stuff. Since omega fats tend to be perceived more healthfully than unsaturated fats, I drive home the point that ALL monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are omega fats. Often this is all the information my clients need to feel more confident about this aspect of grocery shopping. Some, however, want more information, so I share the following with them.

Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)

The primary MUFA in the diet is oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid. We commonly consume it in canola and olive oils, among other foods. Even though the body makes omega-9 fatty acids, we lower our risk for cardiovascular disease when we replace sources of saturated and trans fats with MUFAs. For example, it’s a smart idea to cook scrambled eggs in canola oil instead of bacon grease.

Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)

PUFAs are further categorized as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Since the body doesn’t make them, we need to get them from our food. In their science advisory, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we do not reduce the amount of omega-6 fats in our diets, as they are heart-healthy, especially when consumed in place of less healthful fats.[iv] Additionally, the AHA encourages us to increase our intake of omega-3 PUFAs.[v] Unfortunately, food labels don’t tell us how much of the PUFAs are omega-3 fats or omega-6 fats. A simple list of foods rich in omega-3 fats guides my patients to wholesome choices.

We can help erase consumer confusion around the good fats lingo simply be reminding them that all unsaturated fats are omega fats and that all unsaturated fats are good fats.

 

[i] IFIC slide deck slide 52

[ii] http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Monounsaturated-Fats_UCM_301460_Article.jsp#.WNgpAISG9kg

[iii] http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Polyunsaturated-Fats_UCM_301461_Article.jsp#.WNgouoSG9kg

[iv] http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/119/6/902

[v] https://healthyforgood.heart.org/Eat-smart/Articles/Polyunsaturated-Fats