Good fat, bad fat

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

How are consumers’ perceptions of fat and health changing? As sugar is increasingly demonised in the media, fat is becoming more acceptable and the dominance of low-fat claims are losing their traction. Consumers are now talking more about “good fats” and the trend towards less processed foods reflects this. Where are the opportunities for meat and dairy producers here?


Attitudes to food and what constitutes a healthy diet are changing. Consumers have been subject to an increasingly complex assortment of messages on how and what they should be eating. A plethora of approaches - from eating clean and low-fat, to paleo and low-carb, high-fibre, natural and unprocessed, to whole food and veganism - have all been touted as the best way of eating that promises to deliver health, well-being and a slimmer waist. Since the 1960s, the most orthodox health advice, as given by the government, has been to eat a diet high in carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables, moderate in protein and low in fat.  Additionally, that people should limit saturated fats from sources such as butter, cream and fatty meat and replace with oils from vegetable sources.

Not so sweet now

In more recent years, as health issues such as obesity and diabetes have become increasing problems in the West, there has been more of a societal focus on trying to limit sugar consumption, with possible solutions such as the sugar tax debated in parliament and the imposition of controls on advertising sugary foods to children. There has been recognition in some quarters that low-fat options are often loaded with sugar and there has been a new acceptance that eating fat is not the sin that it once was. Since 2012, low sugar is now a bigger draw than low fat in terms of consumers’ priorities. 

Chart showing consumers want 'healthy foods' to be low in sugar, low in fat, and contribute to 5 a day

In a damning report in 2016, the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration called for a major overhaul of current dietary guidelines, arguing that we should be looking for an avoidance of sugar-containing processed foods and return to eating whole foods such as meat, fish and dairy and including plenty of fats from sources such as avocadoes.

Market change

While this viewpoint is still controversial, what is clear is that some of these messages are resonating with consumers, many of whom are reassessing their relationship with eating fat. 

Image showing consumers avoiding grain and sugar has grown since 2002, while fewer are banning fat

Data from Gallup, published by Food Business News, showed that in the longer term (since 2002), consumers have moved from tending to actively avoid fat towards actively avoiding sugar. In addition, Kantar Worldpanel in May 2017 highlighted that shoppers are switching from products containing unhealthier trans-fats like margarine and spreads to butter, and from skimmed milk to semi-skimmed, or even directly to whole milk, in some cases.

Consumers were increasingly reporting that they chose butter for health reasons, reversing the previous scenario where they chose margarine on that basis. This is one of the factors behind increased demand for butter.

Growing opportunities

Processors and food manufacturers have taken some of these trends on board. In 2017, Unilever put its unprofitable yellow fats business (brands such as Flora and I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter) up for sale. This coincided with declining consumer demand for the types of fats found in margarine, and the growth in demand for butter. Also within the dairy category, big pot yogurt sales have grown in response to increasing demand for fuller-fat products such as Greek yogurt (which is naturally higher in fat and protein). 

Widely recognised as a good fat, millennial hipster-favourite avocado sales have boomed in recent years.   High in fat-soluble vitamin E and delivering a satiating dose of monounsaturated fats, sales have soared to £142 million per year according to The Grocer, overtaking the humble orange.    

A switch to whole and natural unprocessed foods, alongside signs of a reduction in the fear of fat, can only be good news for producers of dairy and meat, who are poised to take advantage of these trends. We cannot overstate this. Old habits die hard and many consumers still look to lower their fat consumption where they can. However, a trend towards more whole and natural foods such as meat and whole dairy incorporating necessary and taste-delivering fats may provide some counter-balance to people enthralled by the meat and dairy limiting flexitarian movement, who may find that vegetarian-friendly alternatives can be more highly processed.