Josh Sosland PortraitKANSAS CITY — In discussions over added fat in the diet, the debate too often is weaponized against baked foods in a “lose-lose” manner for grain-based foods. Reduced-fat baked foods in the 1990s were blamed for lulling consumers into overeating, prompting a surge in obesity. Never mind that per capita consumption of fats and oils never declined at higher-than-recommended levels during this period; carbohydrates were indicted as the culprit. 

While many nutritionists disparagingly describe low-fat dieting as outdated orthodoxy, others who are concerned about excessive saturated fat intake also condemn grain-based foods. Low fat or high fat, carbohydrates are blamed. In a background nutritional information post on its website, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health identified the five leading sources of saturated fat in the diet, in order as — pizza and cheese; whole and reduced-fat milk, butter and dairy desserts; meat products (sausage, bacon, beef, hamburgers); cookies and other grain-based desserts; a variety of mixed fast-food dishes (many of which may be grain-based). 

With its generous sprinkling of grain-based foods, the list obfuscates the actual sources of dietary saturated fat, which, as tracked (in 2010) by the US Department of Agriculture are meat (including poultry and fish), 29%; dairy products (including butter), 28%; and salad/cooking oils, 21% — a combined total of 78%. Grains alone contribute only 1.6%. If shortening (heavily used in baked foods) were added, grains account for about 10% of saturated fat intake. While some share of the cooking oils could be assigned to grain-based foods as an ingredient, it’s clear the industry’s products are anything but the major source of saturated fat implied in the T.H. Chan data.

This confusing introduction of grains into questions about the healthfulness of oils and fats has found its way into the considerations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. In its recently published scientific report, the committee cited data urging the replacement of saturated with unsaturated fats and warned that replacing saturated fats with refined grains potentially heightens the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Not surprisingly, consumers have mixed views about the healthfulness of fats and saturated fats. This diversity of thought was well captured in a survey published earlier this month by the International Food Information Council Foundation exploring consumer purchasing behaviors related to dietary fats and oils. Asked what product they would buy when comparing two items that differ only in fat content, 38% said they would not buy the lower-fat product and 36% said they would, with the remaining 26% unsure. At the same time, more than 60% of respondents said they always or at least some of the time try to limit their intake of saturated fat.

The war against reduced-fat baked foods has been effective. Among food categories in which reduced-fat products are offered, reduced-fat baked foods don’t rank high. For example, 52% of consumers said they purchase dairy products that are lower in fat, 36% choose snack foods that are lower in fat, 36% for meat and poultry and 32% for dairy desserts. By contrast, the figure was only 18% for bakery products, lower than any category except for candy/chocolate, 17%.

Efforts to develop and promote healthier fats have never stopped, despite the mixed signals. In the 1980s, scientists achieved a blockbuster success developing a low-erucic acid rapeseed oil, thanks in part to a name change to canola oil. Its use continues to grow rapidly, more than doubling in the United States since 2006. By contrast, Procter & Gamble’s efforts to introduce olestra, a fat substitute, failed because of challenges gaining Food and Drug Administration approval and later because of sluggish sales.

More recently, development efforts have been directed principally toward filling the vacuum created by the banning in 2018 of trans fats in foods. A wider variety of innovative fats also have been introduced, including one called Epogee EPG, which reduces calories from fat by 92%. Others allow for the inclusion of less sugar. The right blend between grain-based foods and innovation in the fats and oils segment still could represent a powerful and profitable combination.