08/27/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Consumer Confusion Reigns: Fat's Role in Healthy Eating Habits

I started my career as a registered dietitian in the late 1980s. The nutrition craze at the time was what I call the "Snackwell's Diet." Nabisco had done the unthinkable -- figured out how to eliminate fat from cookies. They introduced their Snackwell line of products based on this new technology, and consumers went crazy for them. Other food manufacturers quickly caught on, and soon there were low fat and fat free products in all the traditional high fat food categories - bakery, ice cream, cookies, cakes. By the mid-1990s, more than 25% of new products introduced in supermarkets had a low or fat free claim(1). At the time, consumers believed avoiding fat would lower their risk of heart disease and the calories they consumed, so they ate these products with wild abandon.

Then the sky fell. Consumers realized they couldn't eat full boxes of Snackwell's cookies and lose weight. They learned there were consequences of switching from fat to sugar and other refined carbohydrates. The illusion had lost its luster.

Fast forward to 2013, and you'll see that the misconceptions about dietary fat are still prevalent. The International Food Information Council's 2013 Food & Health Survey(2) indicates that 69% of consumers strongly or somewhat agree with the statement "I try to eat as little fat as possible." The effect of the Snackwell's Diet on consumer attitudes and behavior still exists, even if you rarely hear about the brand anymore.

Today, science has shown that it isn't the amount of fat you eat that matters, but the type of fat. Overconsumption of saturated and trans fats may lead to heart disease, but if used to replace these unhealthy fats, mono- and polyunsaturated fats can lower the risk of heart disease. By avoiding or limiting all types of fat, consumers typically eat more carbohydrates, including refined grains. Ultimately, this replacement doesn't improve health.

Despite what the science says, consumers are still confused, as shown by the latest IFIC and Gallup research(3):

• 50% of survey participants indicate they try to limit or avoid saturated and trans fats.
• 25% of consumers are trying to limit mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which is not the desired response.
• Only 9% of consumers indicate they are trying to consume more healthy fats.
• 25% or more of consumers indicate mono- and polyunsaturated fats are less healthy than other fats.
• More than 65% of consumers indicate they don't know what foods are high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

While education is needed to help consumers understand that good fats are part of healthy, balanced eating habits, there are also regulatory actions that could positively impact the misperceptions about fats. Some health professionals believe the U.S. Food & Drug Administration should eliminate the "low fat" and "fat free" claims. Today, including mono- and polyunsaturated fats in the Nutrition Facts Panel on products is voluntary. Making the listing of these fats mandatory could also increase consumer awareness of good fats and provide the data needed for consumer education on the comprehensive fat profile of food products.

The call to action for those involved in health education is to help consumers understand that not all fat is bad and that there are many good fats in the supermarket, at restaurants and even in the home kitchen. Canola oil, avocados, olives, walnuts, and salmon are considered good fats and may positively impact the risk for chronic disease.

I'm amazed that the effect of the "Snackwell's Diet" has lingered into this decade and stage of my career. But it has fueled my passion to get the word out and help consumers understand that fat is an important component of healthy eating habits and that not all fats are created equal.

1 - Martinez, Steve W. Introduction of New Food Products With Voluntary Health- and Nutrition-Related Claims, 1989-2010, EIB-108, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, February 2013.

2 - Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition and Health, the International Food Information Council, 2013.

3 - International Study of Consumer Knowledge and Attitudes Towards Dietary Fats and Oils, Gallup, 2012.