It's been some time since the fat-free food craze began, but with ongoing reports of the downside of eating too much dietary fat, food manufacturers continue to tempt us with literally thousands of low fat and fat-free foods on supermarket shelves. But buyers should beware – foods designated as light, lowfat or fat-free may not save you calories.
Some of the labels on the first fat-modified foods screamed "light" - leading unwary shoppers to conclude that the products could be eaten with abandon. Only on closer inspection of the nutrition facts was it apparent that many "light" products weren't necessarily lighter in calories, dashing hopes for truly guilt-free snacks and sweets.
Labeling laws are pretty clear on this point – foods like "light" mayonnaise or "light" salad dressing are labeled as such because they have one-third the calories of the traditional form of the food, or half the fat. But if not referring to less fat or calories, the term "light" might also refer to a light taste, color, or texture, and it may take a keen eye to catch these references on a label. "Light" olive oil is lighter in taste – but it has just as many calories as the extra virgin.
Products with less than a half a gram of fat per serving can be labeled "fat-free" – so unless you eat several times the recommended serving, you can figure that your fat intake from that food will be reasonably low. But compare your fat-free version with the standard food before you decide.
With baked goods like cookies or pastries, the fat-free items often have a lot more sugar than the regular version – with no real difference in calories per serving. Sometimes the original food doesn't have that much fat to begin with, so it may be better to stick with that product since the fat-free versions often cost more, too.
The same principles apply when it comes to "sugar-free" foods – products with less than a half a gram per serving can be labeled as such. But consume enough of them, and it can still make a contribution to your calorie intake. Some people eat "sugar-free" candy like there's no tomorrow – and can take in several hundred calories a day if they're not careful.
Due to health concerns, food manufacturers have been scrambling to remove trans fats from many of their products, but in some cases they have replaced trans fats with saturated fats – which can also raise cholesterol levels. And as with sugar, foods with less than a half a gram of trans fat per serving can be labeled "trans fat-free" – so read labels and watch your servings.
Some foods aren't "free" of a particular ingredient, but have less of it than the regular product. Reduce a nutrient, such as fat, by 25 percent or more and labels can tout the words ‘"reduced" or "less" or "fewer" – as in "reduced calorie mayonnaise" or "60 percent fewer calories than regular mayonnaise".
Food manufacturers have heard consumers loud and clear, and work to meet continued demand for tasty products with less fat, calories or sugar. And while the labeling laws are pretty clear, a little comparison shopping is still in - order. Those fat-free cookies may keep your fat intake down, but boost your sugar intake – you may end up paying more and saving few, if any, calories.
Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.