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Two reports examine the problem consumers have when avoiding certain foods, and why it may not be leading to better health.

Arielle Weg
January 30, 2018

When it comes to healthy eating, we tend to demonize certain foods over others. One day saturated fats are the root of all problems, and the next it's salt or sugar. The American Heart Association has recommended limiting saturated fat to prevent heart disease since 1961, and though they still suggest cutting down on sat fat, new findings suggest there may be a bigger problem at hand. The issue isn't so much avoiding a specific food, but replacing unhealthy choices with other unhealthy choices. 

Packed food makers have been decreasing the amount of salt and sugar their products contain over the last decade, but increasing the amount of saturated fats. This is according to a November 2017 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report examined nutritional changes in packaged foods such as breakfast cereals, yogurts, snacks, candies, and frozen meals from 2008 to 2012.

The findings concluded that, in all five categories, the amount of sugars dropped or stayed the same. The amount of sodium was also lower in all categories other than frozen meals. However, amounts of saturated fat increased in every categories other than candy. Caloric counts stayed constant in all five categories.

RELATED: The American Heart Association Promotes Healthy Fats for Heart-Health

One nutrition expert, Barry Popkin, speaking to the Washington Post attributed the rise in saturated fats to the growing awareness of the dangers of trans fat; food makers replaced the more dangerous trans fats in their products with saturated fats. Popkin also suggested that as the links between consuming fat and gaining weight have started to be challenged—and foods like whole-milk yogurt have become popular again, amounts of saturated fat have grown.

Others find a connection between the changing amounts of salt, sugar, and saturated fats in processed foods. Food consultant Ryan Dolan also spoke to the Post, noting that companies are struggling to keep foods both nutritious and flavorful enough to woo customers. As brands cut down on sugar and sodium, the best way to increase flavor is by adding saturated fat.

Jamie Vespa, Cooking Light’s assistant nutrition editor, explains consumers were once fearful of fat, so packaged foods were forced to add salt and sugar to enhance the flavors of the lower-fat foods they were selling. Now that they can get away with a higher fat product, they are most likely reverting to more basic ingredients.

In a related issue, an advisory published last year by the American Heart Association found the campaign to decrease risk for cardiovascular disease or CVD, obesity, and type-2 diabetes by encouraging Americans to eat less animal fats wasn't as successful as they thought it would be. 

In fact, the advisory noted, many studies that consider the risk of CVD based on saturated fat intake end with misleading results, because they don't account for what participants are replacing the fat with in their diet with. The advisory explains saturated fats are often replaced with refined carbohydrates and sugars, leading those who were concerned with their fat intake to consume more high-calorie foods with very low nutrients. 

In both instances, consumers looking for healthier options avoid one unhealthy substance—by replacing it with something equally unhealthy. So it is important to look at not only what you're avoiding, but what you're replacing it with. The advisory suggests research points to replacing saturated fats with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to lower risk of heart disease.  

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Vespa says it is important for consumers to pay attention to the ingredient list as well as to the nutrition label, since where a fat comes from is an important factor. If a breakfast cereal contains coconut oil, for instance, this will definitely increase saturated fat—and that’s ok.

She also encourages consumers to be aware of how products are marketed. If a breakfast cereal claims to be a good source of whole grains, yet the first ingredients are oil, salt, or sugar then it’s probably not a great pick. However, if the top ingredient is actually a whole grain such as oats or whole wheat flour, then it is probably much better.