Recognition of certain fat compounds as not only healthful but vital might finally have reached a tipping point. A 2020 study conducted in five countries by the consumer research company New Nutrition Business revealed that more than a third of consumers between the ages of 25 and 44 are actively seeking to eat more healthy fats. The survey further identified increasing fat consumption as a gradual but steady trend related to new weight management strategies that challenge previous mainstream dietary advice.
Amid this trend, product launches with more than 30% fat content—such as high-fat dairy—are up, and butter sales have jumped, outpacing the growth of margarines and spreads by 360%. A Toronto-based start-up is just one of the new food companies taking advantage of this paradigm shift. The Good Fat Co., Ltd. offers a full line of products called “Love Good Fats” that are low-carb, low-sugar, and listed as being free of polyols, gluten, soy, GMOs, and artificial preservatives. The company’s bars, truffles, and shakes use unrefined coconut oil, peanut butter, almond butter, olive oil, and dairy butter.
The Alpha of Omega
The breakthroughs in research on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids several decades ago marked the start of consumers learning that fat was not to be feared. Today, the term “good fats” not only refers to the omega-3s but encompasses other types of fats that have positive effects on human health.
Omega-3 fatty acids were the first type of fat that put healthful fats on the map. A type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), these are the main reason the health benefits of certain lipid compounds finally gained much deserved attention. Omega-3 fats benefit from decades of research demonstrating they are important in multiple areas of health. The main sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil, certain nuts and seeds (such as chia and flax), and algae.
For product developers, chia seed oil is a rich omega source that has the added benefit of a naturally high smoke point, about 420°F. This means it can be used in high-heat applications such as frying and baking, while retaining its healthful benefits. Chia oil has a light, clean flavor as well, and thus is adaptable to sweet or savory formulations.
Following quickly was the recognition of other omega fats, specifically omega-9s, a type of monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA). Popular sources include olive, avocado, grapeseed, canola, mustard seed, and nut oils. Together, these omega-class lipids have been shown to contribute to health ranging from control of insulin and blood sugar levels to improved cardiovascular function, inflammation mitigation, improved cognitive function, better lung function, easing of asthma symptoms, and other physiological benefits. Omega-9 oils are finding increased market opportunities for replacing inexpensive saturated fats and shortenings.
Among the omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from marine sources such as fish and algae, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plant sources. ALA is converted by the body into other fatty acids, including EPA and DHA. However, the process is not as efficient as when one consumes EPA and DHA directly. While all the omega-3 fatty acids can provide multiple benefits, EPA has shown marked effectiveness for countering inflammation, while both DHA and EPA get good marks for promoting brain health.
Omega-6 fat—linoleic acid—is another type of PUFA. Linoleic acid can be converted into longer-chain omega-6 fatty acids, such as arachidonic acid. Although experts stress the need to reduce consumption of omega-6s in the diet, these fats still are essential and healthful in moderate amounts. However, arachidonic acid has been shown to produce pro-inflammatory hormonal mediators.
A lesser-known essential fatty acid, omega-7, is gaining popularity not only for the aforementioned benefits of essential fatty acids, such as inflammation and blood sugar control, but this type specifically has been shown to promote more youthful-looking skin. Sea buckthorn oil is recognized as having the highest concentration of omega-7 fat.
Even with all the emphasis on plant-based foods, there is one animal fat that really stands out for being healthy—and it is dependent on the nature of the feed the animals consume. Grass-fed beef and milk are not only good for the environment, but they also produce a fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Research shows CLA has a multitude of benefits, from protecting against cancer to promoting weight loss. The CLA content is estimated to be 300-500% higher in grass-fed beef and dairy than in grain-fed.
Alphabet of Lipids
Beyond improving the flavor and texture of foods, fats also have the highly important role of transporting and delivering fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K—and other healthful lipids. Of these, vitamins D and E tend to be in short supply in the modern diet.
All the lipid-based vitamins have antioxidant capacity, but that of vitamin E in its tocotrienol form has proven to be especially high, some 200-400 times that of tocopherol, which is one of the more common natural antioxidants used in food production. Over the past couple of decades, tocotrienols have shown specific anti-cancer abilities, displaying not only preventive potential but apoptosis–cancer cell destroying—capacity as well. Annatto oil, red palm oil, and rice bran oil are especially good sources of tocotrienol.
Nut oils, especially walnut oil, are good sources of omega fatty acids. They also are high in the tocopherol form of vitamin E, as well as sphingolipids and phospholipids, two lipid forms that also count as valuable fats.
The past few years have seen all lipid-based nutritional compounds recognized as forms of healthy fats. The carotenoid compounds related to vitamin A (astaxanthin, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin, and others), as well as the phospholipids phosphatidyl choline, phosphatidyl serine, and phosphatidic acid have become subjects of intense study for their health benefits, specifically positive effects on the brain and cognition as well as mitigation of stress and anxiety.
Carotenoids are especially favored for their support of eye and vision health and performance as well as for skin health. Astaxanthin has been shown to be especially critical in protecting the eyes from the damaging blue light spectrum emitted by computers and smart screen devices.
The phospholipid lecithin has long been popular in food production for improving performance in multiple food and beverage applications, including bakery and confections. It also is used to enhance the organoleptic qualities of plant-based dairy and meat analogs. Now that its health benefits are becoming better recognized, specialty lecithin lines derived from plants are available as clean-label, organic, non-GMO options.
Kerry Hughes, MS, principal for EthnoPharm, is a frequent contributor to this magazine and a nutrition science expert and ethnobotanist, with a 20-year record of success in natural product development. EthnoPharm specializes in innovative product formulation, education, and nexus-of-market opportunity identification. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
High On Oil
With health experts recommending that the majority of the fats in the diet should be monounsaturated (MUFAs) or polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), ingredient makers have developed high-oleic varieties of a number of common food oils from plants that have been bred to carry increased amounts of MUFAs – at least 80%. Soy, canola, and sunflower oil all can now be found in high-oleic formats. One recent addition to the line-up is high-oleic peanut oil.
I Can See Clearly Now
While the health benefits of the carotenoids that form the pigments in fruits and vegetables are not news, new colorless carotenoids, called phytoene and phytofluene, have been discovered that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other beneficial properties for the skin. In a study published in Global Dermatology, 22 healthy women were given the equivalent of 5mg phytoene and phytofluene daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, a significant improvement in skin dryness, suppleness, “evenness,” and texture was observed. These clear carotenoids also were found to prevent the production of darker melanin and promote skin renewal. It’s known that an abundance of beta-carotene in the diet can turn the skin orange, yet interestingly, phytoene and phytofluene have demonstrated a skin lightening and protecting effect. They are now available in a form used for supplements and foods, and could soon be finding their way into new “beauty from within” products.