Are consumers benefitting more than they know from recent food and behavior trends?

By: Emma Partridge

American consumers are undoubtedly moving toward natural foods. An analysis by Datassential of consumer foodservice issue concerns may explain some factors in this overall trend; consumers appeared most concerned with antibiotics and steroids in animal proteins and/or dairy products, local food sources and manufacturers surviving, and GMOs, among other issues.1 Fortune magazine calls it “the war on big food” – but are consumers benefitting from more than just those ‘left out’ factors?2 I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Mario Kratz, researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, core faculty member of the University of Washington (UW), and Associate Director of the UW Diabetes Research Center, to discuss a few of these food trends and what their intrinsic health benefits might be.

One trend of note is the move toward full-fat dairy products. Whole milk sales rose 11% in the first half of 2015 alongside a 14% fall in skim milk purchases.3 While many speculate this shift is in line with movement toward wholesome, unprocessed foods, there are unrecognized benefits to full-fat dairy beyond its less-processed nature. Full-fat dairy may increase satiety, or lead a person to feel more full than if (s)he ate a low-fat dairy product. In evaluations of 16 dairy fat studies, Dr. Kratz’s team found that, of studies comparing high-fat dairy to low-fat dairy, high-fat dairy intake was actually associated with better weight outcomes, and was not associated with higher weight. Further, 11 of the 16 studies revealed that people who ate more dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods tended to be leaner and/or gain less weight over time than those who ate less dairy fat.4 The results from these analyses make a case for full-fat dairy as a protectant against weight gain, potentially due to increased satiety response. Additionally, there are other fatty acids present in full-fat dairy that can act as hormones, and small amounts of these fatty acids may be beneficial. The scientific reasoning behind the presence of many fatty acids supports full-fat dairy and, on the other side of that coin, there is no data supporting healthful benefits from consuming non-fat, low-fat, or isolated-fat dairy products in which many of the fatty acids have been removed.5

Another food trend of note over the past few years is that of coconut oil. While part of the trend may be attributable to its non-cooking uses, coconut oil is also highly heat resistant, has a long shelf life, and is rich in medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs). The heat-stability of coconut oil is beneficial to reducing intake of harmful free radicals, but MCFAs may be the most significant of coconut oil’s intrinsic health benefits. In a study comparing long chain fatty acids, generally purported to be less-healthy fatty acids, to MCFAs, researchers found MCFA-treated mice exhibited increased energy expenditure, reduced adiposity, and improved insulin sensitivity.6 It is possible, then, that consumers following the coconut oil trend may be reaping such metabolic health benefits.

Perhaps the most significant trend to watch is that of developing healthy, lifestyle-based eating patterns, which is recommended by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in the recently-released 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In a media-driven world of shoulds and should-nots, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee took a different approach with this year’s release: develop patterns of healthy eating and physical activity within the environment around you. Dr. Kratz argues something similar, that pattern matters and a varied eating pattern may allow for small amounts of cravings and diet-breakers, thusly providing a method to control them.5 In short, his “number one” advice point is, “in spite of whatever craze you may be following right now…if you find something new, you should find a way to incorporate it into your overall diverse diet.”

1.Webster M. Changing Consumer Behaviors and Attitudes. Culinary Institute of America; 2015.
2.Kowitt B. Special report: the war on big food. Fortune 2015.
3.O’Connor A. Consumers Are Embracing Full-Fat Foods. The New York Times 2015. Why Whole Milk May Be Better Than Skim. Bottom Line Health 2014.
5.Mario Kratz P, MS. In: Emma Partridge MC, ed2016.
6.Montgomery MK, Osborne B, Brown SHJ, et al. Contrasting metabolic effects of medium- versus long-chain fatty acids in skeletal muscle. Journal of Lipid Research. 2013;54(12):3322-3333.