Food Label Detective: How to Spot the Good Fats

When you review a food nutrition label, do you know how to separate the good fat from the bad? This primer will teach you how.

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In the world of food, “fat” was once considered a dirty word, but we now know there are a group of good fats that you should include in your diet. But how do you know which fats are the good ones, which ones to steer clear of, and what to look for on food labels? Read on for some easy-to-master tips that will have you navigating the grocery store with confidence.

The Basics: Good Vs. Bad

All fats are not created equal. Dietary fat can be broken down into the “good,” monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, and the “bad,” trans fat and saturated fat.

Good fats are a necessary part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Monounsaturated fats are found primarily in plant-based oils like olive and canola, and nuts and seeds. They're non-essential fats, which means your body can produce them on its own (though you can get more through your diet). Polyunsaturated fats, which the body does not create on its own, include both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (a term many people are familiar with), and are found in seafood like wild salmon, herring, sardines, and oysters; flaxseed and chia seeds; and plant-based oils like soybean and canola. Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats are also found in foods that are mainly oil, such as buttery spreads.

Trans fat is used to make liquid vegetable oils more solid and extend a food’s shelf-life (small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in some meat and dairy products). Trans fats are known to adversely affect blood vessels and raise bad (LDL) cholesterol. Saturated fat is found mainly in animal sources of food, such as butter, cheeses, red meat, and other fatty meats. It has been found to increase the risk of heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends that around 25 to 35 percent of a healthy adult’s daily calories should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which support cholesterol levels that are already in the normal range, are a source of energy, and, when they replace similar amounts of saturated fat in the diet, may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

On the Food Label

Both saturated fat and trans fat amounts are clearly listed underneath “Total Fat,” although some foods labeled trans fat-free may still contain small amounts (up to 0.5 grams) of trans fat. That’s why it’s important to also check a food’s ingredient list. Avoid foods that contain “partially hydrogenated oil,” which means trans fat is present. To limit the saturated fat in your diet, look for foods that have 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.

Underneath “Total Fat,” you should also see entries for monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Look for foods that have most of their total fat breakdown in these categories. Keep in mind that the majority of the fats you consume in your diet—about two-thirds—should be good fats.

For more information about good fats and how you can incorporate them in your daily diet, learn more here.

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