Weighty Issues: The Low-Fat Food Craze

Reduced fat. Low fat. Fat free. These terms are used every day - and seen on products in virtually every aisle in grocery stores. There was a time when terms and claims could be tossed around with abandon, but no more. The government put a stop to that in 1990 with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, regulating how these terms can be used, along with other popular food verbiage like lean, extra lean and the ubiquitous light (or lite if you’re so inclined).

A company cannot even think about calling a product “fat free” unless it contains less than one half gram of fat per serving. “Low fat” is a bit more liberal, with a whopping 3 grams of fat per serving. It gets a little trickier with “reduced fat” and percentage claims. And for a product to carry the designation “light” or “lite,” the fat content must be reduced by at least 50 percent. So, if you know the language, you can at least know what you’re getting – and what you’re not.

Not so long ago, low fat and fat free were not a part of the language – except for maybe in a few health food restaurants in Berkley, Ca. So how did they get here? It all started with a fat-free cookie a decade ago. SnackWells burst onto the scene in 1992, offering a fat-free cookie that was fairly tasty, at least for the time, and actually exceeded consumer expectations. It was an amazingly successful product introduction - so much so that the brand aired a television commercial apologizing for shortages on store shelves. Suddenly, reduced fat was big business. And just about every major food manufacturer would soon follow suit.

Since those early days, the demand for reduced fat foods has dramatically risen. A national survey conducted by Prevention magazine revealed that 56 percent of adult Americans are trying to reduce their fat intake. And according to a Calorie Control Council survey conducted in 1998, 79 percent of the adult U.S. population consumes low- or reduced-fat foods and beverages. That translates to 163 million adult Americans. That’s a lot of cookies, chips, ice cream and salad dressing.

But is fat all bad? Actually, fat has its good side. In fact, it’s a very necessary part of the diet and vital to human existence. It also supplies essential fatty acids, helps maintain healthy skin and regulate cholesterol metabolism. Fat has another job in the body, to transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat provides concentrated energy and helps us feel full and satiated. And fat is found in a whole slew of foods, not just heavy cream, butter and prime rib. Fat is even found in broccoli and cantaloupe, albeit in trace amounts.

Which leads to the question, if fat is so much a part of food, how can it be reduced? Or totally removed, for that matter? The answer is easy: It can’t. Simply put, when reducing the fat in a product, something else must be added to replace it, usually called a fat replacer. Of course, exactly what is added is the not-so-easy part of the answer. There are three types of fat replacers: carbohydrate-, protein- and fat-based. These fat replacers are typically developed in laboratories by teams of chemists trying to mimic the taste and texture fat adds to food. Different types of products require different types of fat replacers. What works in a mayonnaise may not work in ice cream, and what works in bologna doesn’t work in snack chips.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, fat replacers usually fall into two categories: “Food additives” or “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” substances. And each has its own set of regulatory requirements. The following FDA definitions detail the differences between the two categories:

* “Food additives must be evaluated for safety and approved by the FDA before they can be marketed. They include substances with no proven track record of safety: scientists just don’t know that much about their use in food. Manufacturers of food additives must test their products, submit the results to the FDA for review, and await agency approval before using them in food.
* “GRAS substances, on the other hand, do not have to undergo rigorous testing before they are used in foods because they are generally recognized as safe by knowledgeable scientists, usually because of the substances’ long history of safe use in foods. Many GRAS substances are similar to substances already in food.”

Either way, we’re not talking about wholesome, natural stuff. It’s test tubes, manipulation and clinical trials all the way.

As for the actual types of fat replacers, you have your cellulose gel, carrageenan, polydextrose, dextrins, maltodextrins, gums, pectins, isolated soy protein, di-glycerides and caprenin, to name a few. They perform functions like emulsification, thickening, stabilization and moisture retention. If it sounds unnatural and processed, it is.

One infamous fat replacer is olestra. What seemed like a major breakthrough in the world of reduced-fat products has proven to be a major bust. Olestra, a Proctor and Gamble product marketed under the brand name Olean, was approved for use in 1996. Soon after, the public was introduced to olestra in P&G’s Fat Free Pringles and Frito Lay’s WOW Chips. Never before had any food manufacturer been able to reduce the fat in a food like snack chips that require extremely high cooking temperatures. Sales went through the proverbial roof, with consumers buying into a product that was too good to be true.

And it was. Olestra is an indigestible fat substitute, passing through the intestines without being digested. The good news is no calories. The bad news is anything from gas and bloody stools to severe abdominal cramping. Soon after these products containing olestra were introduced, stories of all-night bathroom vigils and emergency room visits were common in the media. After thousands of complaints, the Center for Science in the Public Interest got involved and urged the FDA to require a warning label on all products containing olestra. Although sales started out very strong, they have gone in the toilet (pun fully intended) over the last couple of years. In fact, Frito Lay recently pulled WOW chips off some store shelves in what it called a “reverse test market.”

Still, the olestra story is an isolated case. No other fat reducer has had the notoriety or the problems. The real trick with reduced fat products is knowing which ones are good, and which ones aren’t. And that’s a matter of trial and error. Many of these products are quite good, and definitely worth the trade off of slightly reduced taste for greatly reduced fat. Others are bland at best; some are downright unpalatable.

So, as more and more Americans try to cut out fat, are they actually doing it? Not really, according to Ronette Briefel, formerly the senior research epidemiologist and nutrition policy advisor at the National Center for Health Statistics. “Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Americans decreased their intake of total fat from about 37 percent of calories to about 34 percent of calories. Yet, during this same time period, average adult calorie intake increased by approximately 300 calories.”

One key thing to remember is that low fat does not equal low calorie. Many reduced-fat foods have increased sugar content and calorie counts almost every bit as high as their higher-fat friends. Another concern with reduced-fat products is overindulgence. Whether it’s larger portions or consuming additional foods because of the “saved” fat, Americans aren’t reducing their waistlines even with the advent of so many reduced-fat choices. According to a statement in a June 2002 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, “The jury is still out on whether fat substitutes provide a health benefit, because individuals who use them seldom lose weight.”