Good fats and bad fats

Can’t tell the good fats from the bad? Read our fat-spotter’s guide to food labels

Not all fats are equal. Many of those that can make up hefty proportions of our weekly diet land firmly in the ‘bad for your health’ camp. They come in tempting forms, in pastries and cakes, biscuits and crisps, chips, cheese, sauces, butter and any number of ready-prepared foods. They can be hard to resist, but they’re hard on the body, too, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke and weight gain.

However, not all fats are bad, there are fats that actually protect our bodies from serious conditions. There’s a sliding scale, from saturated – just the name makes it sound like trouble – to omega 3 fatty acids, which can actually help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Eating for a healthy weight

If you want to reach or stay a healthy weight, and protect your health, the sensible move is to cut back on all fats, especially the bad ones, and make sure you get enough of the good ones. (but not too much, as even good fats contain calories). That means not just reading the labels on the food you buy, but understanding them.

A good starting place is to see how far up the list of ingredients a substance comes. The ingredients are given in order of weight, so the ingredient that’s first in the list is the one there’s most of. The one at the end of the list is the one there’s least of.

Here’s our guide to fats on food labels, with more information to help you make smart choices and to speed up your shopping trip.

Foods containing saturated fats

Found in foods including

  • butter
  • hard cheese
  • cream
  • pastry
  • meat products
  • lard (meat fat)
  • coconut oil
  • palm oil.

What saturated fats do to your health

Eating too much saturated fat can raise the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your blood and increase your risk of serious health problems.

Foods containing trans fatty acids (also known as trans fats or trans unsaturated fats)

  • hard margarine 
  • full-fat margarine
  • fast food
  • pastries and other baked goods (doughnuts, pastries, biscuits) especially those that contain hydrogenated fats.

What trans fats do to your health

Eating too much trans fats can increase your levels of LDL (the bad cholesterol). There is some evidence that eating this type of fat is worse for your health than saturated fats.

Trans fats also occur naturally in low levels in dairy products, beef and lamb, however research has found that these fats don’t affect your risk of cardiovascular disease in the same way as hydrogenated trans fats such as those found in fast food and pastries.

Under European law, food producers don’t legally have to put trans fats separately on food labels, something that the Food Standards Agency is trying to change.

Trans fats can be formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated, so foods that contain hydrogenated vegetable oil (which does have to be included on ingredient lists) may also contain trans fats.

Foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil

  • biscuits
  • cakes
  • pastry
  • margarine
  • processed foods

What hydrogenated vegetable oil does to your health

Hydrogenated fats are created when liquid oil is turned into more solid fat. Eating too much of this type of fat can raise your LDL cholesterol levels.

Foods containing polyunsaturated fats

  • sunflower oil
  • safflower oil
  • corn (also known as maize) oil
  • fish oils

How polyunsaturated fats help your health

Eating polyunsaturated fats can reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood.

Foods containing monounsaturated fats

  • olive oil
  • walnut oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • peanut (groundnut) oil
  • avocados.

How monounsaturated fats help your health

Eating monounsaturated fats can reduce the level of LDL and triglycerides (fatty substances) in your body and slightly raise the level of HDL (the ‘good’ high density lipoprotein cholesterol).

Foods containing omega-3 fats (also known as omega-3 fatty acids) 

Found in oily fish (herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, trout and pilchards). Some omega-3 fatty acids are found in linseed, flaxseed, walnut and rapeseed oils, but they aren't the same fatty acids as those that come from oily fish.

How omega-3 fats help your health

Eating enough omega-3 fats – 0.5 to 1g per day - can lower levels of triglycerides (bad lipids) in your body and reduce the risk of blood clotting.

Finding fats on the food label

These are the main groups of fats. However, fats come from many different sources and have a range of descriptions, not all of which make it clear that they are fats.

Here are some of the names for fats that you might find on food labels;

  • lard
  • cocoa butter
  • coconut
  • coconut oil
  • coconut cream
  • egg solids and egg yolk solids
  • hydrogenated vegetable fat or oil
  • palm oil and palm kernel oil
  • vegetable oil
  • vegetable shortening and animal shortening
  • animal fat
  • non-milk fat
  • whole milk solids.

Food Agency guidelines

It’s not always easy, especially when you’re in the middle of a busy supermarket, to tell whether the sauce or ready meal you’ve just picked up is heavy on fats or will help you lighten your load.

To make it easier to work out whether or not we’re making a good choice, the Food Standard Agency has produced some guidelines.

The nutrition information box on the food label gives the amounts of calories and nutrients, such as fibre, carbohydrates and fats.

When you’re looking at the total fat content, remember that 20g counts as a lot, while 3g is a little. With saturated fat 5g is a lot, and 1g is a little. (For the guidelines on other common nutrients go to the Food Standard Agency’s website).

What is low fat

If a product is labelled ‘low fat’ it means that the food has less than 3g of fat per 100g(or 100ml) of the food.

What is reduced fat

If a food product has these words on the label it must contain 25% less fat than a similar standard product. This can still mean a lot of fat! Read the label carefully to see how much fat there is in 100g of the food.

Less than 5% fat – or 95% fat free

This means that the food has less than 5g of fat per 100g. Don’t forget to check on the label though, and see exactly how much it is. And remember to multiply that amount by the size of the serving. If the food has 4g of fat per 100g, and a portion is 400g, it will give you 16g of fat in your meal.

Nutritional labels

The Food Standards Agency have developed the Traffic Light system of labelling, which you have probably already seen on the foods you buy. This gives an at-a-glance guide to how much energy/fat/salt and sugar foods contain. Red means a lot, amber means a moderate amount and green means a little.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.