Last week I provided recommendations on how to shop for produce, meats, eggs, fish and seafood, and packaged items. On this post I will go through packaging labels that are related to fat content.
If an item is labeled as “reduced,” “low,” or “free,” they may not be. The supposed benefit of these labels is to help consumers identify healthy food options. They also help consumers control calorie, nutrient, and portion intake. This is useful for people who need to control the amount of fat they consume due to a health condition. They are also useful for people who are watching their weight or needing to lose weight, and for consumers who are more conscious of the types of food and nutrients they ingest.
The biggest challenge with these labels is that although they may be used on products that are healthier when compared to other options, they may still not be healthy.
For instance, unless a product states that it “contains no trans fats,” there may still contain as little as 0.5 g of trans fat per serving, which the FDA determines is acceptable. If only one serving is consumed, it may be okay, but if consuming more than one serving at a time, or consuming one serving daily, it may not. In addition, although reduced fat options contain less overall fat, manufacturers may increase the total content of trans fats, which are not healthy.
Similarly, reduced sugar or sugar free items may instead contain sugar alcohols or more fat to compensate for the reduction in sugar. Sugar alcohols still affect blood sugar levels and provide added calories.
Low-Fat or Reduced Fat Foods
The low-fat craze was a phase that I experienced when I was in my late-teens and early twenties. I was obsessed with low-fat foods. If a fat-free or low-fat option was available at the grocery store, I bought it. This habit lasted until my doctor told me that I was pre-diabetic and insulin-resistant, and needed to change my diet or I would end up with type-2 diabetes. I could not understand how that could be. I had been meticulous about following what I thought was healthy choices. I did not understand how I could be pre-diabetic.
My doctor referred me to a Registered Dietician (RD), who evaluated what I consumed. She asked me if I was aware of how much sugar I was consuming. I told her that I did not believe I consumed too much sugar because my food options were low-fat or fat-free. She pointed out that fat-free did not mean sugar free. She asked me to look at the labels more closely, and explained that low-fat foods had high sugar content.
In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan (2008) seconded that statement, and explained that the low-fat craze started in the 1970’s from a belief that saturated oils were unhealthy and promoted high cholesterol, and that vegetable oils and low fat consumption promoted weight loss and health.
The food industry responded by creating foods that replaced natural animal fats and oils with hydrogenated vegetable oils, guar gum, carageenan, soy protein, cornstarch, and fake foods. Sugar and sugar derivates were added to get the right consistency and improve the taste of these imitation foods. As a result, ingredient lists for food items went from a handful of ingredients to long list of often un-pronounceable chemicals (Pollan, 2008).
I stopped eating low-fat foods, and after a year or so my body’s sugar levels were normalized. Looking at the food labels of items I used to consume, I see that high fructose corn syrup was a common ingredient. High fructose corn syrup is believed to “contribute to obesity and other health conditions” (Mahan, Escott-Stump, & Raymond, 2012).
Another Example: Milk
Looking at the amount of fat in milk, it is easy to get confused by labels on milk containers claiming they are skim, reduced fat or 2%, or low fat or 1%. People may read these labels and interpret them to mean that skim milk has no fat at all; that reduced fat milk only has 2% fat; and that low fat milk has 1% fat.
The reality is that skim milk is not 100% fat free. There is around 0.5g of fat in one cup of milk, and depending on how the milk is processed, there may be a bit more. The truth is that 0.5g of fat in milk is considered ‘too little’ to make a significant contribution to the diet, thus allowing milk companies to use a fat free or nonfat claim on their labels.
Reduced fat and low fat milk indicate that the milk has 2% or 1% fat by weight. In the case of reduced fat milk, a 2% fat content by weight means that the milk has “about half the fat of whole milk” (Stewart, 2007). This means that while whole milk has 8 g of fat in one cup of milk, 2% or reduced fat milk has around 4.7 g of fat. With low fat milk, a 1% fat content by weight means the milk has “about one-quarter the fat of whole milk” or around 2.6 g of fat in one cup of milk (Stewart, 2007).
One thing to be mindful of when fat is being removed from milk, and even other dairy products, is the possible increase of sugars. Often, milk producers will add sugar to the milk to make lower fat products taste better. This is not the case with all milk companies, which means it is important to read the labels in the milk container prior to purchasing.
In fact, it is best to fully read all the nutritional labels on the foods and select those that offer the amount of fat, sugar, and other nutrients that provide the healthiest option.
Pollan, M. (2008). In Defense of Food. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Stewart, K. L. (2007). Eating Between the Lines. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.