Sign up to receive email updates, action alerts, healthy eating tips, promotions to support our work and more from EWG!
Depending on who you talk to, the seven grams of saturated fat in that tablespoon of butter may be a significant contributor to heart disease – the number one cause of death in the United States – or just a delicious morsel, especially if you can get it from organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised cows.
In the 1980s, the conventional wisdom was clear: Anything high in fat was out (La Berge 2008). This led to massive use of the marketing phrase “fat-free,” which continues today as a disingenuous come-on for anything from pasta sauce to heavily sugared, trans fat-containing non-dairy coffee creamers.
In the intervening years, it’s become clear that the low-fat diet craze was unhelpful for both Americans’ waistlines and their health.
Since the 1980s, the amount of fat that Americans eat has decreased slightly even as obesity rates soared in concert with diabetes (Lichtenstein 1998; CDC 2012; CDC 2014). Coronary heart disease deaths have dropped, but the number of people with heart disease has been stable, with nearly half of all American men and a third of women having heart disease during their lifetimes (Go 2014; CDC 2013a; CDC 2013b).
The problem is that low-fat diets placed the focus on Total Fat, and by doing so lost all nuance and threw the baby out with the bathwater.
At best, the Total Fat listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts panel is just unhelpful. It promotes thinking of fat as a single entity that should be avoided altogether.
But fat is not a single entity. Without delving too deeply into nutritional biochemistry, there are many different types of fats, and they come in complex mixtures in food. It’s best to think of them as a family – related, but with distinct personalities. And as with most families, you have to take the good with the bad (which you try to limit), and you do your best to avoid the ugly. Side note: It’s not desirable, or even achievable, to completely remove the bad (more on this later).
Adding the good stuff and the bad stuff together into a Total Fat number is confusing; it’s like adding up your Total Vegetables for the day by counting both salad and French fries – when you lump them together you lose all the useful information.
One healthy and one unhealthy food with similar amounts of Total Fat
The good ones are the monounsaturated fats in foods like olive oil and avocados and the omega-3 fatty acids (a type of polyunsaturated fat) in many fish. The FDA doesn’t require that they be labeled, but sometimes manufacturers voluntarily list the amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in a food product.
Then there’s the ugly – manmade trans fats – an invention so ill-considered it’s estimated to be responsible for up to 7,000 deaths a year (Dietz 2012). They’re created by taking a healthier but less shelf-stable polyunsaturated fat and submitting it to high temperatures or pressures, forcing the molecules into an unhealthy configuration – so much so that the Institute of Medicine warns people to keep “consumption… as low as possible” (IOM 2005). Despite the known risks, trans fat products remain on the market because they’re cheap, lengthen shelf life, have nifty functional properties and thus boost manufacturers’ bottom lines.
Last but not least are the saturated fats, long regarded as the bad stuff you should limit. Several hundred studies have assessed the effect of saturated fats on blood cholesterol. In general, the more saturated fat you eat, the higher your total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol concentrations and the greater your risk of developing coronary heart disease (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2010; IOM 2005).
But just as there are many types of fat in general, there are many different types of saturated fats. Not all saturated fatty acids behave the same way in the body or raise bad cholesterol the same way (IOM 2005; Hunter 2010). More research is needed.
Low-fat diets do reduce bad cholesterol (LDL), but by minimizing the good fats, they also lower good (HDL) cholesterol (Nordmann 2006; Smit 2009).
Fat is a highly satisfying food, and a little goes a long way. When food manufacturers removed it to make fat-free cookies and mayonnaise, they had to add something tasty to replace it. Most of the time, that turned out to be sugar or other refined carbohydrates such as white flour or starch.
Study after study has shown that when you take healthy fats out and replace them with sugar or other carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It ends up lowering both the good and the bad cholesterol as well as increasing other unhealthy fatty molecules in the blood called triglycerides (Sacks 2002; Jakobsen 2009; Siri-Tarino 2010b; Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2010).
But if you replace saturated fat in your diet with heart-healthy unsaturated fats, you lower the risk of heart disease (Hu 2001; Jakobsen 2009; Mozaffarian 2010). This echoes common sense: It’s clearly healthier to eat a piece of fish for dinner in place of pizza or a double-bacon cheeseburger.
Recently three meta-analyses (research that combines the results of multiple studies) found that there’s not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat is really that bad for heart disease (Siri-Tarino 2010a; Chowdhury 2014; Schwingshackl & Hoffmann 2014).
Some point to these studies as conclusive evidence that a food’s saturated fat content can be safely ignored. But a review of the details reveals that these studies actually provide further support that replacing saturated fat with healthier fats matters. Here are the facts:
In addition, the Cochrane Collaboration, an independent non-profit research organization, conducted the most extensive meta-analysis to date of 48 randomized, controlled trials. It concluded that reducing or replacing saturated fat with more healthful fats reduced the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events by 14 percent (Hooper 2012).
More reasons to go easy
Keep these points in mind:
The cold, hard truth is that the majority of scientists worldwide – at the World Health Organization, the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association – all recommend a reasonable limit on Saturated Fat to reduce your risk of heart disease while keeping total calories down (WHO 2002; IOM 2005; Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2010; Gidding 2006; Eckel 2014).
And when you look at the top smugglers of saturated fat in the American diet, it’s easy to see why. If pizza, cookie and cakes, ice cream or cheese make regular appearances in your daily diet, it’s wise to keep an eye on it.
Still, saturated fat has long been part of the human diet and is in lots of healthy foods. Avocados, olive oil, salmon and walnuts are all significant sources of saturated fat. Remember that saturated fat increases HDL (the good cholesterol) and reduces triglycerides – the fat that makes your blood thicker and more likely to clot, leading to heart attack or stroke (Smit 2009). Completely removing saturated fat from the diet is not the goal.
As with any other nutrient, whether it’s sodium or sugar or vitamin A, there’s an optimal range of consumption. Current, sensible worldwide guidelines call for limiting saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories. In a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that’s roughly equal to 14 slices of bacon a day (IOM 2005; WHO 2002; USDA 2013).
For most people, that’s not a restrictive amount. In fact, it’s rather generous, unless you finish your day with a Hungry Man frozen meal.
How EWG’s Food Scores Tackles Fat
Many food manufacturers have responded to the public’s growing awareness of the dangers of Trans Fat by replacing partially hydrogenated oils with fully hydrogenated oils, which contain much less trans fat but are still sources of unhealthy solid fats and empty calories. Ignoring saturated fat makes these products appear much more healthful than they really are.
As new research becomes available, nutrition guidelines may get more specific about consuming the different types of saturated fats. If the consensus changes, EWG will modify its Food Scores algorithm accordingly.
Right now the scientific consensus is clear that replacing saturated and trans fat with healthier fats, especially the omega-3s found in fish is beneficial to health. It’s also clear that the replacement of saturated fat with refined, blood sugar-raising carbohydrates is not. The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines give equal weight to avoiding added sugars, saturated and trans fats; EWG’s Food Scores penalizes added sugars more heavily.
The fact that EWG’s Food Scores algorithm somewhat penalizes foods for saturated fat content doesn’t mean that it’s anti-fat any more than it’s anti-calories, which are also considered by the algorithm. Saturated fat contributes a small amount to the overall score – in stark contrast to the much greater weight given to added sugars.
As long as you’re not consuming too many calories and eating a balanced diet, it’s pretty safe to ignore Total Fat on a product’s Nutrition Facts label.
So can I just enjoy my butter in peace?
It depends on you, really. Are you’re using a little to cook up some wild-caught salmon and home-grown green beans, or adding butter to Hamburger Helper Cheesy Baked Potatoes? Are you topping your salad with feta? Or nuking a frozen grilled cheese sandwich?
Want to make a delicious piecrust with lard? Go ahead. Pie – with all its accompanying added sugars – is never going to be a health food, even if the crust was made with fish oil (yum!), whole-wheat flour and honey.
EWG reviewed the most up-to-date science on saturated fat. We’re aware of the ill-considered low-fat fervor of the past, and that the onetime conventional wisdom turned out to be misguided. By narrowly focusing on fat as a single nutrient, we lost the nuance and probably even more importantly, the context – your overall diet.
Right now, a new bandwagon is headed in exactly in the opposite direction, but that doesn’t mean disregarding the “14 slices of bacon rule” is right either.
EWG’s Food Scores fits as many of these considerations as possible into one big math equation so you don’t have to. And for a multitude of good reasons, that equation includes saturated fat.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2012. Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960-1962 Through 2009-2010. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_adult_09_10/obesity_adult_09_10.pdf [Accessed November 24, 2014].
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2013a. Deaths: Leading Causes for 2010. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr62/nvsr62_06.pdf [Accessed November 24, 2014].
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2013b. National Center for Health Statistics (US). Health, United States, 2012: With Special Feature on Emergency Care. Hyattsville (MD): National Center for Health Statistics (US). Morbidity. Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK148942/?report=reader#!po=37.5000 [Accessed November 24, 2014].
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2014. Crude and Age-Adjusted Rate per 100 of Civilian, Noninstitutionalized Population with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980-2011. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/prev/national/figage.htm [Accessed November 24, 2014].
Chowdhury R, Warnakula S, Kunutsor S, Crowe F, Ward HA, Johnson L, Franco OH, Butterworth AS, Forouhi NG, Thompson SG, Khaw KT, Mozaffarian D, Danesh J, Di Angelantonio E. 2014. Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 160(6): 398-406.
Dietz WH, Scanlon KS. 2012. Eliminating the use of partially hydrogenated oil in food production and preparation. JAMA. 308(2): 143-4
Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2010. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC. Available: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/dietary_guidelines_for_americans/2010DGACReport-camera-ready-Jan11-11.pdf [Accessed December 2, 2014].
Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard, JD, Hubbard VS, de Jesus JM, Lee IM, Lichtenstein AH, Loria CM, Millen BE, Houston Miller N, Nonas CA, Sacks FM, Smith SC Jr, Svetkey LP, Wadden TW, Yanovski SZ. 2014. AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology American/Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 129(25 Suppl 2): S100-1.
Gidding SS, Dennison BA, Birch LL, Daniels SR, Gillman MW, Lichtenstein AH, Rattay KT, Steinberger J, Stettler N, Van Horn L; American Heart Association. 2006. Dietary recommendations for children and adolescents: a guide for practitioners. Pediatrics. 117(2): 544-59.
Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Blaha MJ, Dai S, Ford ES, Fox CS, Franco S, Fullerton HJ, Gillespie C, Hailpern SM, Heit JA, Howard VJ, Huffman MD, Judd SE, Kissela BM, Kittner SJ, Lackland DT, Lichtman JH, Lisabeth LD, Mackey RH, Magid DJ, Marcus GM, Marelli A, Matchar DB, McGuire DK, Mohler ER 3rd, Moy CS, Mussolino ME, Neumar RW, Nichol G, Pandey DK, Paynter NP, Reeves MJ, Sorlie PD, Stein J, Towfighi A, Turan TN, Virani SS, Wong ND, Woo D, Turner MB; American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. 2014. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics−−2014 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 129: e28-e292. Available: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/129/3/e28 [Accessed November 24, 2014].
Hooper L, Summerbell CD, Thompson R, Sills D, Roberts FG, Moore HJ, Davey Smith G. 2012. Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 5: CD002137.
Hu FB, Manson JE, Willett WC. 2001. Types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. 20(1): 5-19.
Hunter J, Zhang J, Kris-Etherton P. 2010. Cardiovascular disease risk of dietary stearic acid compared with trans, other saturated, and unsaturated fatty acids: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 91(1): 46-63.
IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2005. National Research Council. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients).
Jakobsen MU, O'Reilly EJ, Heitmann BL, Pereira MA, Bälter K, Fraser GE, Goldbourt U, Hallmans G, Knekt P, Liu S, Pietinen P, Spiegelman D, Stevens J, Virtamo J, Willett WC, Ascherio A. 2009. Major types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a pooled analysis of 11 cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 89(5): 1425-32.
La Berge AF. 2008. How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 63(2):139-177.
Lichtenstein AH, Kennedy E, Barrier P, Danford D, Ernst ND, Grundy SM, Leveille GA, Van Horn L, Williams CL, Booth SL. 1998. Dietary fat consumption and health. Nutr Rev. 56(5 Pt 2): S3-19; discussion S19-28.
Mozaffarian D, Micha R, Wallace S. 2010. Effects on coronary heart disease of increasing polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS Med. 7(3): e1000252.
Nordmann AJ, Nordmann A, Briel M, Keller U, Yancy WS Jr, Brehm BJ, Bucher HC. 2006. Effects of low-carbohydrate vs low-fat diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arch Intern Med. 166(3): 285-93.
Nicklas T, Johnson R. Position of the American Dietetic Association: dietary guidance for healthy children ages 2 to 11 years [published correction appears in J Am Diet Assoc. 2004; 104:1075]. J Am Diet Assoc. 104: 660–677.
Sacks FM, Katan M. 2002. Randomized clinical trials on the effects of dietary fat and carbohydrate on plasma lipoproteins and cardiovascular disease. Am J Med. 113 Suppl 9B: 13S-24S.
Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. 2014. Dietary fatty acids in the secondary prevention of coronary heart disease: a systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression. BMJ Open. 4(4): e004487.
Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. 2010a. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 91(3): 535-46.
Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. 2010b. Saturated fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 91(3): 502-9.
Smit LA, Mozaffarian D, Willett W. 2009. Review of fat and fatty acid requirements and criteria for developing dietary guidelines. Ann Nutr Metab. 55(1-3): 44-55.
USDA and DHHS (U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services). 2010. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Available: http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.htm [Accessed Oct. 13, 2014].
USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). 2013. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26. Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory. Available: http://www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/ndl [Accessed Dec. 11, 2013].
WHO (World Health Organization). 2002. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. WHO Technical Report Series, No. 916. Available: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/trs/WHO_TRS_916.pdf [Accessed March 30, 2014].
The Eat Well Guide helps consumers find locally grown and sustainably produced food. Listings include farms, restaurants, stores, farmers' markets, and CSAs throughout the United States.Visit the Eat Well Guide
Sign up to receive email updates, action alerts, healthy eating tips, promotions to support our work and more from EWG! You can opt out at any time.