Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Meeting dietary fat requirements

K.T. Achaya. United Nations University Programme, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, India

Actual fat intakes in India
Quality of fat consumed
Comparison with recommended levels
Fat intakes in childhood
Edible fat shortages


Fat is an expensive commodity, and average consumption over several years in India has been just 12 to 14 grams per day. Dietary surveys reveal low intakes in Karnataka and Tamilnadu, average intakes in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and high intakes in Gujarat and Kerala. Urban dwellers consume more than do rural, and metropolitan cities have comparatively high in takes. Income is a major determinant of fat in take, but regional culinary practices play a part.

Average diets in various parts of India carry-16 to 24 grams of invisible fat, which is present at some level in practically every foodstuff. Half such latent fat derives from the staple food. Total fat intakes from these diets come to 36 to 44 grams per day, contributing 13 to 27 (average 18) per cent to dietary calories. Even poor diets (1,000 to 1,300 calories) still carry 10 grams or 9 energy per cent as fat,

Apart from their other dietary and nutritional functions, fats carry the two essential fatty acids (EFAs), linoleic and linolenic. These act in the body as precursors of the prostaglandins, a group of some 20 compounds that are synthesized in various organs and perform a large number of vital functions. FAO/VVHO recommend that EFA-derived calories should constitute, as percentages in various diets; adults, 3, pregnant women, 4.5, and nursing mothers, 7. Indian diets, if adequate in calories, would easily meet these norms; even average diets, below par in calories, carry 3.5 to 4.5 energy per cent as EFAs.

High proportions, from 35 to 45 per cent, of fat-derived calories in the diets of advanced countries, together with the living stresses of modem life, appear to conduce to coronary heart disease. For India moderate fat levels of 18 to 20 per cent appear optimal. The actual range is from 8 to 32 per cent, and at all energy intakes, the invisible fat contribution is close to 9 energy per cent. Average Indian diets, 20 to 30 per cent energy-deficient, have the recommended fat level. Consumption of 2,800 calories by any adult, including a pregnant or lactating woman, would call for 30 grams of external fat.

Infants on breast milk receive 20 to 27 grams of fat daily. This quantity halves in the first year, while external fat intake varies with both region and income. Breast-milk substitutes should ensure 50 to 60 energy per cent as fat and weaning foods 25. EFA levels in infant foods should be 3 to 5 per cent (with a further 1 per cent of higher unsaturated fatty acids if possible) and in weaning foods 3 per cent.

Vegetable oil production in India has stagnated at around 9 million tonnes over the last decade, and prices have sky-rocketed. Any breakthroughs in respect of the groundnut which constitutes ha/f the total oilseed crop, would make the strongest impact. The sunflower, safflower, and niger all have potential to raise oil production, as does further exploitation of ricebran and of existing tree oilseeds. Soya and the oil palm are of very limited utility.

Actual fat intakes in India

Developing countries are characterized by low intakes of fat, since of all basic foodstuffs, fat is one of the most expensive. Figures for consumption of fat in the various states of India are to be had from various dietary surveys, and these show quite wide variations (Protein Foods Association of India 1969 and 1972; Hindustan Thompson Associates 1972).

States like Karnataka and Tamilnadu consume low quantities of fat (9 and 10 grams per day per head), Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are medium consumers (11 and 14 grams), and Gujarat and Kerala are high consumers (18 and 21 grams). Urban dwellers consume more per head than do rural, and metropolitan cities have the highest intake of all: Calcutta city dwellers, for example, average 26 grams daily.

Income is a major determinant regulating use. As income goes up, so does, almost proportionately, the consumption of fat. Thus in Calcutta city both poor and rich spend 6-7 per cent of their income on edible oil. But cultural factors also seem to play a part. Thus the proportion of families who use no fat at all ranges from low figures of 0 to 5 per cent of all families in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Tamilnadu to as high as 43-60 per cent in Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. Income differences cannot explain these very great disparities in fat usage. Nor will a factor like vegetarianism, because in Gujarat, which is 69 per cent vegetarian, practically all families buy and use fat, and in Tamilnadu, which is only 16 per cent vegetarian, nearly all families use fat. The most likely explanation is that regional culinary practices are reflected in fat usage patterns, for example, a Bengali will probably strive for at least a few drops of mustard oil to flavour his food.

Aboriginals represent a special group. Dietary surveys show that daily calorie intakes can range from as high as 2,600 to just half that figure, but fat intakes per se are always below 5 grams per day, and frequently non-existent (Achaya 1978a).

So far we have been talking of fat that is used for cooking or at table. But almost all foodstuffs contain some amount of fat. Oilseeds and nuts, milk, meat, fish, and eggs are obvious examples, and rice, wheat, pulses, grains, tapioca, tubers, and vegetables are less apparent ones. Detailed dietary surveys that list individual foodstuffs permit the quantities of such invisible or unseen fats to be calculated. Such calculations for average diets in the north, south, east, and west of India show that some 16 to 24 grams of fat are present invisibly in the food items (other than fat per se) that are consumed. Nearly half of this comes from the staple foods, usually cereals and tubers (such as tapioca in Kerala) since these are eaten in amounts of over 400 grams per day. If the visible fat consumption is taken into account, the total fat intake in some regions varies from 36 to 44 grams per day. This would make a contribution to calorie intake of between 13 and 27, average 18 per cent, which is not a really low figure.

It is also noteworthy that even very poor diets, containing no visible fat and furnishing only 1,000-1,300 calories daily, will still carry about 10 grams of invisible fat, making a calorie contribution of about 9 per cent. Many poor tribal diets would fall into this category (Achaya 1976, 1979b).

Quality of fat consumed

Until fairly recently, fats were viewed in nutritional terms as concentrated sources of calories, as carriers of fat-soluble vitamins and as adding palatability to the diet. A little later the role of linoleic acid as an essential fatty acid was revealed, first in preventing skin scaliness, particularly in children; then as a protective factor in stress situations, and thereafter as a dietary factor that appeared to be implicated in preventing the deposition of plaques of cholesterol esters on the aorta walls, a condition termed atherosclerosis. In the last two decades, the importance of dietary linoleic and even linolenic acid has been dramatically highlighted following a realization of their role as precursors of the prostaglandins. These compounds are synthesized from the two essential fatty acids (EFA), and there are twenty or more prostaglandins, all closely related in structure. Prostaglandins perform a variety of vital functions such as muscle contraction, blood platelet aggregation, relief of pain, fertility in the male, conception and reproduction in the female, and many others.

Prostaglandins appear to be synthesized by many organs in the body as and when required, and the quantities present at any time are reckoned in milligrams. The quantity of dietary linoleic acid required for synthesis of the requisite quantity of prostaglandins is not known with certainty, and has to be deduced by the dose of linoleic acid required to correct certain skin conditions, and for restoration of certain biochemical indices. An FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Dietary Fats held in October 1977, after reviewing the evidence available, felt that 3 per cent of the energy level in adult diets should derive from dietary EFA (FAO/WHO 1977).

The total visible and invisible fat intakes of average diets in the four cardinal areas of the country furnish a linoleic acid content that ranges from 17 to 28 per cent of the fat present, four-fifths coming from the invisible fat component. In terms of weight this works out to 7 to 10 grams of linoleic acid daily, or 3.5 to 4.5 per cent. For the upper income groups, the figure is 11 to 15 grams (about 6 energy per cent), and for the low-income groups 6 to 11 grams, or 3.6 to 5.7 (average 4.5) energy per cent (Achaya 1979c).

Comparison with recommended levels

In various parts of the world fats furnish very varying proportions of the total calories. In developing countries, the figure is 35 to 45 per cent, and, since calories levels are also high, the quantity of fat exceeds 100 grams daily. Eskimos derive over 50 per cent of their energy from fat, without apparent evidence of degenerative disease. Developing countries show wide variations. In India very low-income and deprived groups, with inadequate intakes of 1,300 to 1,500 calories, get all their fat invisibly, and this constitutes some 8 energy per cent. At the other extreme affluent groups in many regions average 70 grams of total fat a day, constituting 32 energy per cent, and many individuals may go even higher. Constant intake of diets that are high in total calories and in fats, as now prevalent in most advanced countries, taken together with the stresses of modern living, appear to be associated with increasing risk of coronary heart disease. More moderate levels, say, of about 18-20 energy per cent as fat, were suggested by FAO/WHO for developing countries with existing low intakes. The Indian Council of Medical Research in their 1981 recommendations suggest 20 energy per cent for adults, about half of which is expected to come from invisible fats (Indian Council of Medical Research 1981).

At all income and consumption levels in India, the contribution of invisible fats is almost exactly 9 energy per cent. Thus a visible fat consumption that will furnish an equal 9-10 energy per cent is called for. For an average adult male optimally requiring 2,800 calories this would mean about 30 grams of visible fat per se a day. For average diets as they stand at present, with calorie intakes that are about 20 to 30 per cent below par, the fat contribution to calories now averages 18 per cent, and no increase in fat consumption appears to be called for. Pregnant and lactating women , provided they consume the levels of calories recommended, would also get enough fat.

What about fat quality? The quantity of 3 energy per cent of essential fatty acids believed to be adequate is met by average Indian diets; these carry 3.5 to 4.5 energy per cent of EFA, because of the fortunate circumstance that the invisible fats in cereals and pulses are rich in this component. If calorie and fat intakes are both raised, it would seem prudent to use unsaturated oils rich in EFA like safflower, sunflower, sesame, and groundnut.

Needs of EFA during pregnancy go up from 3 to 4.5 per cent, and during lactation to 5 to 7 per cent. Again, use of unsaturated oils is advisable, apart from extra food as a whole.

Fat intakes in childhood

How do Indian children fare in terms of fat? Not too badly at first, but not too well as they grow older. When breast milk is available in adequate amounts, in the first year of life an Indian baby gets 20 to 27 grams of fat daily, and in the second year 12 to 16 grams, from this source alone. Thereafter both income and region begin to play their part. In a state characterized by a generally high fat consumption such as Gujarat, daily fat intakes are between 16 and 17 grams in the third, fourth, and fifth years of life. In a "low-fat" state such as Karnataka the figures lie between only 5 and 12 grams. High-income groups in Calcutta city, who can afford to buy animal milk, show an average fat intake of about 25 grams a day for these three post-weaning years, against just 9 grams for low-income groups in the same city. However, since breast feeding is less prevalent among the affluent, their children may sometimes paradoxically show lower fat intakes in the early years than the lowest-income, breast-feeding segment (Achaya 1979).

Thus on grounds of fat intake, as for many other reasons, breast feeding is undoubtedly the best feeding method. Artificial foods that substitute for breast milk should be so formulated as to ensure the high level of 50 to 60 energy per cent through fat that is required by infants. By the time of weaning the fat requirement and tolerance drop sharply, and weaning diets require about 25 energy per cent as fat, or about 17 grams daily. Weaning food formulations must take this into account, as should supplementary weaning foods that are made in the home.

In terms of essential fatty acids, children on breast milk during their first year obtain from this source 2 grams per day (or 3.6 energy per cent) of linoleic acid and one gram per day (or 1.8 energy per cent) of other poly-unsaturated fatty acids. In the second year these figures drop to 1.5 to 2.5 grams per day (2 to 3 energy per cent), and 0.4 to 0.7 grams per day (0.4 to 0.8 energy per cent). By the fifth year the actual linoleic acid intake drops to just 1.5 to 2.8 energy per cent, after which the levels gradually move up to the adult pattern of 3.5 to 4.5 energy per cent (Achaya 1979). Thus weaning and the pre-school years mark a low point in respect of EFA intake, as they do in other nutritional respects. Fats provide energy without undue bulk, and the use of unsaturated liquid oils in larger amounts in weaning foods, though costly, seems to be called for.

Edible fat shortages

Edible cooking oil or hydrogenated fat gets costlier all the time. This price rise has been disproportionate to that of other foods. In the decade 1965-1975, while the price index of foodstuffs as a whole rose by a factor of about 2.6, that of edible fats increased nearly 3.5 times. Apart from general inflation, which affected the price even of foodstuffs produced in abundance, the shortage of edible oils in the country pushed up their prices abnormally (Chandrasekaran and Achaya 1980).

What is the extent of this shortage? Production of all vegetable oils in the country has hovered at 2.0 to 2.5 million tonnes over the last decade, with an average annual increase of just about 1.2 per cent. On the other hand the demand for oils has gradually been rising, partly because of the increase in population by 2.5 per cent annually, and partly because a rising standard of living of the upper-income groups of society is always reflected in an increase in consumption both of edible oils, as well as of products like soap and paints that are made from vegetable oils. As a result we have been forced to import from the world market an increasingly larger quantity of oils. As international prices have risen the amount being spent for such buying from abroad has now reached a figure of some Rs 800 crores annually. This is true even when the cheapest oils on the world market are imported, such as palm oil from Malaysia, rape/mustard oil from Canada, soybean oil from the United States, and sunflower oil from the USSR.

The shortfall is well recognized, and each five-year plan has set targets that have unfortunately never been realized. While it may be true that emphasis on wheat and rice production has caused a movement away from growing crops like pulses and oilseeds, there are a few problems specific to the latter. The groundnut is our major oilseed and accounts for half the total vegetable oil in India. Hence any increase in yield through genetic engineering would be of vital importance. As a cross-pollinated crop, hybrid breeding is difficult to effect. Using seed irradiation, mutants have been developed with several plus points such as large seed size, high yield per hectare, and high oil contents, which could serve to bring about a Green Revolution in this important oilseed. A constant fear with the groundnut is the aflatoxin problem to which the oilcake is prone, which has led to some reluctance in markets abroad to use this cake as animal feed. Varieties innately resistant to the growth of the mould have been identified, but there are other regional eco-agricultural parameters that must be maintained as well. New oilseeds have been suggested that might improve the oil position. The sunflower has been developed as a very rich source of oil, especially in the USSR and East European countries. The sunflower is a cross-pollinated crop that requires that each individual floret in a head is pollinated through extensive bee activity, and there have been disappointments with poor seed filling when the crop has been grown in southern India. Cross-pollination has been achieved by labourers with cloth gloves on their hands walking between the rows brushing pollen from flower to flower, and some self-pollinating varieties have also been developed. The sunflower has a deep tap root and is thus much less affected by drought than is the shallow-growing groundnut; this is important since drought years always result in low groundnut yields. The spectacutar success in Malaysia of palm oil and palm kernel oil (a rare case of two oils from the same fruit, one from the flesh and another from the seed kernel, each with different characteristics and end-uses) is unlikely to solve India's edible oil problem, since climatic factors would confine any palm oil plantations to Kerala, the Little Andaman isle and just a few other hot, humid areas. The soybean has been much publicized, but in my view does not really suit India's requirements as an oilseed crop. It is a poor source of oil (only 16-18 per cent), and after processing gives rise to a huge quantity of protein cake. This will have to go into processed protein foods for which markets are small and lie in the upper economic brackets who are not short of protein in their diets. Thus soybean oilcake will end up as an Indian export item, which is hardly the best use of our scarce cultivated land area (Achaya 1975).

As the gap between availability and market demand widens, the prices rise, the consumer suffers and the Government is pressed to use hard-earned foreign exchange in ever greater amounts to import oil. The matter is further complicated by the very speculative nature of the oil market, in which moneyed persons control the buying and selling of both oilseeds and oils, and can create critical shortages so as to push up prices and then sell at a profit. Accordingly the National Dairy Development Board, at the request of the Government, is carrying forward a plan to use vegetable oil, donated from abroad in the first instance, to stabilize market prices. At the same time this would generate the money required to modernize and restructure the vegetable oil sector through co-operative production and marketing of oilseeds and oil, to a point where it would have its say in the oilseed economy (National Dairy Development Board 1980).


Fat is an expensive commodity, and average intakes in India are low. Income is a major determinant, but regional culinary practices play their part.

Average Indian diets carry substantial quantities of invisible fat, half of which derives from the staple food. Total fat intakes average about 18 per cent of dietary energy, and just meet the FAO/WHO recommended level (18 to 20 per cent) for developing countries. Indian average diets are energy deficient, and an adult level of 2,800 calories would call for doubling the quantity of external fat consumed. Norms prescribed for essential fatty acid levels are easily met by Indian diets, both actual and recommended.

Infants derive a large proportion of their energy from the fat in breast milk. Infant and weaning foods should ensure adequate fat and essential fatty acid levels.

Vegetable oil production in India has been stagnant for a decade. Breakthroughs in groundnut technology would have a large impact. Sunflower, safflower, and niger have potential, but hardly soya or the oil palm.


Achaya, K.T. 1975. "Tackling the Edible Oil Famine." Economic and Political Weekly, 10: no. 19: 758-769.

___. 1976. "Invisible Fat Intake from Indian Dietaries. " Indian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, 13: 362 370.

___. 1978. "Visible and Invisible Fat Consumption in India, and the Influence of Region, Income and Age:" (Part l: Availability and Consumption of Visible Fat. Part II: Invisible Fat Intakes. Part III: Quality of the Fat Consumed). Indian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, 15: la) 120-127; (b) 149 153 and (c) 181-190.

Chandrasekaran, S., and K.T. Achaya. 1980. "Profile of the Indian Vegetable Oil Industry: I. Production System. II. Movements of Oilseeds and Oils." Economic and Political Weekly, 15: no. 8, pp. 441-445, and no. 9: 475-482.

FAO/WHO. 1977. "Dietary Fats and Oils in Human Nutrition." FAO Food and Nutrition Paper 3. FAO, Rome.

Hindustan Thompson Associates (Calcutta). 1972. "A Survey of Food Habits in Calcutta. United States Agency for International Development, American Embassy. New Delhi-110 021.

Indian Council of Medical Research. 1981. Recommended Dietary Intakes for Indians. ICMR, New Delhi110 016.

National Dairy Development Board. 1980. Annual Report. Anand-388 001.

Protein Foods Association of India. 1969. Food Habits Survey in Gujarat and Maharashtra. PFA, 22 Bhulabhai Desai Road, Bombay-400 022.

. 1972. Food Habits Survey Conducted in Southern Indian. PFA, 22 Bhulabhai Desai Road, Bombay-400 022.

Contents - Previous - Next