Learn about the different fats in food and which foods are sources of fats that should be preferred or limited.

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About fats

Fat is an important nutrient for your body. It:

  • gives you energy
  • helps your body grow and develop
  • helps your body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K

The 3 different kinds of fat are:

  • trans
  • saturated
  • unsaturated

These 3 fats have different effects on your health.

Sources of fat

Trans fats

Trans fats can be found naturally in some animal-based foods or can be industrially produced.

They occur naturally in foods such as:

  • beef
  • lamb
  • dairy products

Industrially produced trans fats are formed during food processing. Some liquid vegetable oils, such as canola and soybean oil, contain small amounts of trans fats. These are formed unavoidably during the refining process.

In the past, the main source of industrially produced trans fats were partially hydrogenated oils. These oils were used by food manufacturers to improve the shelf life and texture of food such as:

  • hard margarines
  • vegetable shortenings
  • commercially baked goods like cookies

Saturated fats

 Saturated fats are found in foods such as:

  • dairy products, including butter, cheese and whole milk
  • animal-based foods, including beef, chicken, lamb, pork and veal

They are also found in:

  • palm oil
  • coconut oil
  • lard and shortening

Unsaturated fats

There are 2 types of unsaturated fats:

  • polyunsaturated
  • monounsaturated

Polyunsaturated fats are found in:

  • nuts and seeds
  • fatty fish, such as herring, mackerel, salmon and trout
  • vegetable oils, including:
    • corn
    • canola
    • soybean
    • flaxseed
    • safflower
    • sunflower

Monounsaturated fats are found in:

  • avocados
  • nuts and seeds
  • vegetable oil, including:
    • olive
    • canola
    • peanut
    • sesame
    • safflower
    • sunflower

Health effects and recommendations 

Blood cholesterol

  • Both "good" cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) and "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) are found in your blood
  • High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in blood vessels. Plaque clogs blood vessels, reducing oxygen and blood flow. LDL cholesterol is linked to a higher risk of heart disease
  • HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver for disposal. High levels of HDL cholesterol are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. It's healthier to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol and lower levels of LDL cholesterol.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in Canada. The type of dietary fats consumed can modify the risk of heart disease because of how they affect cholesterol levels.

Trans and saturated fat

Trans and too much saturated fat are not good for your health.

Both trans and saturated fats can raise the levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol in the blood.

Trans fats can also lower the levels of blood HDL ("good") cholesterol when compared to other dietary fats.

To help decrease trans and saturated fat intakes, select lower fat dairy products and lean meats when choosing these foods.

Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats are good for your health. In fact, some are essential to the healthy functioning of the body.

Replacing foods that are higher in saturated and trans fats with foods that are higher in unsaturated fats will help to lower:

  • LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and
  • the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol in the blood

These effects can help to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Foods that are higher in unsaturated fats are a common part of diets that have been shown to benefit health.

Situation in Canada

Trans fat

In the 1990s, Canadians had one of the highest levels of trans fat intake in the world. Since the early 2000s we have tried to reduce the trans fat intakes of Canadians through various approaches, including:

  • requiring trans fat labelling on packaged food
  • setting voluntary targets for trans fat in processed foods

These approaches have been very successful in reducing trans fat levels in the Canadian food supply. As a result, Canadians have decreased their trans fat intakes dramatically over the last few decades. Despite this progress, some of our foods still remained high in industrial trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.

On September 17, 2018, Health Canada banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils in foods, the main source of industrially produced trans fat. The ban came into effect with the addition of partially hydrogenated oils to the List of Contaminants and other Adulterating Substances in Foods. It is now illegal for manufacturers to add partially hydrogenated oils to foods sold in Canada.  This includes both Canadian and imported foods, as well as those prepared in all food service establishments. This initiative will help reduce:

  • trans fat in the food supply to the lowest level possible
  • the trans fat intakes of Canadians

In turn, it is expected that this will help reduce the risk of heart disease among Canadians. 

Saturated fat

Nearly half of Canadians consume too much saturated fat. Health Canada is consulting  on a mandatory front-of-package nutrition symbol for foods high in saturated fat as well as sodium and sugars. This initiative aims to help Canadians more easily identify foods that are high in saturated fat, sodium and sugars.

Using the food label

In Canada almost all packaged food labels must have an ingredient list and a nutrition facts table. This information can help you make healthier food choices.

Nutrition facts table

When you're buying packaged foods, compare products by using the nutrition facts table on the food label. The table shows the % daily value (% DV), the type and amount of fat.

When looking at the nutrition facts table, you will notice:

  • an overall fat category
  • saturated and trans fats are listed together

The % DV for both saturated and trans fat should be as low as possible.

Food manufacturers do not have to list unsaturated fats in the nutrition facts table. To find out the amount of unsaturated fat if you don't see it listed in the table, subtract the sum of saturated and trans fats from the total fat.

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