Executive Update

Health, Wellness and Ingredient Safety: What’s the Skinny on Fats?

While there has been a considerable public health focus in recent decades on decreasing trans fats and saturated fats in foods, there has conversely been surmounting evidence that consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids will reap substantial cardiovascular benefits. During this session, the panelists discussed three vehicles through which to better communicate these benefits to consumers: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Institute of Medicine (IOM) Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) reports, and nutrition and health related claims on food packages.

This session panel included Roger Clemens, Ph.D.,Chief Science Officer, Horn/ President, Institute of Food Technologies/ Adjunct Professor, Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences, USC School of Pharmacy; David M. Klurfeld, Ph.D., National Program Leader, Human Nutrition, USDA Agricultural Research Service; and Sarah Roller, Partner, Kelley Drye & Warren LLP.

During his presentation, Clemens identified opportunities to improve consumer messaging about healthy fats in future editions of the Dietary Guidelines.

One such example lies in continuing to encourage fish consumption. While consumers know fish is healthy because of its nutrients, they also know it contains harmful methyl mercury. Although research has shown that two servings of fish per week can provide adequate levels of n-3 fatty acids with minimal methyl mercury exposure, the challenge lies in communicating that information effectively.

“Consumers today think fat is all bad,” Clemens explained. “They cannot and are unable to separate the different types of fat. To the common consumer, this vernacular [regarding different types of fat] is a bunch of words. They want to put them all in the same bucket.”

Dr. Klurfeld expanded Clemens’ notion of consumer misinformation in his presentation.

“The average consumer is confused about these types of things,” Klurfeld explained. “They’ve gotten the message that fish oil is good for them, but remarkably only half [of survey respondents] know Omega-3’s are good for them. They don’t connect Omega-3’s to fish oil.”

He went onto discuss that while most consumers understand they should limit saturated and trans fats, some still wrongly believe that they should limit healthy fats.

While many beneficial health effects are associated with the consumption of n-3 fatty acids, Klurfeld emphasized that in order for this evidence to be incorporated into future IOM DRI reports, study design must be epidemiologically strong and focus on one or two specific health benefits, rather than the gamut that have been linked to omega 3s.

From a legal perspective, Roller discussed the problematic structural bias in the regulation of health claims, stating that the current regulatory framework allows for very limited nutrition and health information on fats to be conveyed in food labeling and advertising, which affects the dissemination of protected speech.

Roller explained that the current framework favors information or claims about the avoidance of unhealthy fats, such as trans and saturated.

“When we look for positive messages about fats, the recommendations are more about food than components of food – seafood, nuts and seeds are highlighted,” Roller said. “There exists an inconsistency in the way we’re talking about fats to limit in the diet as compared to beneficial fats. Beneficial fats are only at the food level.”