Despite trendy diets that encourage fat consumption, fat-free, low-fat, reduced fat and light foods are still staples in nearly every grocery store.
According to U.S. Census data and the Simmons National Consumer Survey, in 2018 more than 100 million Americans bought fat-free and low-fat products.
These fat-related labels may be vague-sounding marketing terms, but they also have specific legal definitions regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA]. Before we get into whether these phrases indicate anything about the healthiness of a product, here’s the breakdown of what they mean:
Synonyms: free of fat, no fat, zero fat, without fat, negligible source of fat, dietarily insignificant source of fat, or skim (only for milk products)
- less than 0.5 grams of fat per labeled serving
- no added fat or ingredient that contains fat (brands may break this rule and continue using the fat-free label, with the condition that they add an asterisk that says they have added a “trivial,” “negligible” or “dietarily insignificant” amount of fat)
- If the food has these qualities without special processing to reduce fat, brands need to say so. A brand could sell fat-free broccoli, for example, but they would need to mention the fact that broccoli doesn’t normally have fat.
The fat-free label is misleading because it implies there is no fat in the product. Obviously this claim is not true.
Synonyms: low in fat, contains a small amount of fat, low source of fat, little fat
- product contains three grams or less of total fat per 100 grams and not more than 30% of calories from fat
- If the food has these qualities without special processing to reduce fat, brands need to specify on the label.
Synonyms: reduced in fat, fat reduced, less fat, lower fat, lower in fat
- at least 25% less fat than the food it is referencing
- needs to specify the reference food immediately after or close to the reduced fat claim (example: reduced fat Cheez-It crackers have 40% less fat than regular Cheez-It crackers)
- If 50% or more of calories come from fat, its fat content is reduced by 50% or more per serving size.
- If 50% or less of calories come from fat, the number of calories is reduced by at least one-third, or its fat content is reduced by 50% or more per serving.
Why These Labels Don’t Necessarily Mean Healthier Food
Society conditions many of us to perceive anything “fat” as bad and undesirable. That’s why something with less fat may seem healthier or more valuable.
One of the problems with this attitude is it neglects the fact that there are many types of fat, some of which are healthy. When doctors and public health professionals talk about fats to avoid, they’re usually referring to artificial trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils. These ingredients are plentiful in processed food products, red meats and millk-based products such as cheese, butter and ice cream.
Saturated fats are not the healthiest, but most people can eat them in moderation without experiencing negative effects. These types of fat are found in animal-based foods, including red meat, cheese, butter and ice cream, as well as some plant-based fats such as coconut and palm oil.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, however, are nutritious and can lower the risk of certain diseases. You can find these forms of fat in some vegetable oils (olive, canola, sunflower), nuts, seeds and fish.
Even a reduction in trans fat doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier food product. When manufacturers remove fat from a product, they need to replace it with something, and the most common substitutions are sugar and corn syrup. This process can also deprive food products of healthy proteins.
During the “fat-free mania” of the 80s and early 90s, many people gained weight because they replaced fats with carbs. In an effort to combat heart disease by limiting fat intake, we contributed to other epidemics such as diabetes and obesity.
Another issue is portion control. Fat makes us feel full and satiated. When we don’t eat it, we often need to consume a greater quantity of the substitute.
The issue is psychological as well. When consumers buy a reduced fat product, some of them eat more servings than they would if it was the regular version. The total amount of fat ingested ends up being the same or more, not to mention the increase in sugar and carbs.
Eating more means buying more, which is exactly what brands want. The option of reduced fat products is a strategy for bilking customers, not aiding them in dietary goals. There is overwhelming evidence that low-carb diets facilitate significantly more weight loss than low fat diets.
Instead of falling for the reduced fat money trap, stick to healthy fats, try a low-carb diet or focus on portion control. Going out for a scoop of delicious, fattening ice cream every once in a while could be better for your mind, body and budget than storing tubs of tasteless reduced fat ice cream in the freezer.
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