Behind the label: Low fat

Fat has long been viewed as a dietary enemy, but despite the prevalence of ‘light’ snacks, ‘skinny’ coffees, ‘fat-free’ yoghurts and ‘heart-friendly’ margarines, two-thirds of UK adults are now overweight. But why did these products gain so much popularity, and do low fat products actually work?

Why have we fallen out with fat?

The start of our low-fat obsession can be traced back to the 1978 publication of Ancel Keys’ Seven Country Study. The first to explore the relationship between diet and cardiovascular health, Keys’ ground-breaking study transformed the way we thought about heart disease, and spread the crucial message that, far from being an inevitable result of ageing, heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle and dietary interventions.

It was the study’s particular emphasis on saturated fats, however, that has had the most profound impact on our diets today. Heart disease, Keys concluded, is caused by high-cholesterol levels that result from eating too much of this ‘bad’ saturated fat. This message was amplified by dietary guidelines issued by governments all over the developed world. These guidelines have remained unchanged: the NHS currently recommends that women eat no more than 20g of saturated fat a day. As a result, foods such as reduced-fat cheese, low-fat yoghurt, 1% fat milk and unsaturated fats like vegetable and olive oils are encouraged as healthy options.

Are low-fat foods actually healthier?

In recent years, however, our fear of fat has come under considerable criticism. Most notably, a report published by a non-profit organisation, Public Health Collaboration, has called for a comprehensive overview of dietary guidelines. While 25% of Brits are obese, and instances of type 2 diabetes have doubled since 1996, the report suggests that far from combating these ‘dire health statistics’, our obsession with low-fat foods has actually made matters worse. One proposed reason for this is that the low-fat boom has increasingly led the public away from home-cooked whole foods and into the lap of processed low-fat alternatives. Since the publication of Keys’ findings, food manufacturers have made a fortune by flooding supermarket shelves with low-fat ready meals, margarines, yoghurts and cereals.

Low fat, high sugar?

In order to make low-fat foods palatable and attractive to customers, manufacturers add increasing quantities of sugar to these snacks. For example, when comparing a popular low-fat vanilla yoghurt with the same full-fat alternative of the same brand, we found that the full fat variety contains 5.1g of sugar per 150ml serving, while the same-sized serving of the low-fat alternative contained a whopping 20g. It’s important to note that added sugar has no nutritional value and, unlike fat, which keeps us fuller for longer, sugar can wreak havoc with energy levels, leaving us tired and craving another sugar hit.

Less is more

Interestingly, an experiment carried out by Cornell University revealed that, in addition to hiding sugar in these ‘healthy’ low-fat foods, we also see low-fat labelling as a green light to increase portion sizes and overeat. The researchers concluded that by reducing the perceived guilt associated with the snack, ‘low-fat labels can lead people to eat more without realising it’. The study found that, on average, participants ate 28.4% more chocolate when it was labelled low-fat.

Which fats are the good fats?

Trans fats. Trans fats are ones to avoid. These chemically altered vegetable oils help preserve processed foods, but have been proven to have a negative impact on our health. NICE’s guidelines are clear: ‘Trans fats are toxic […] as with cigarettes there is no safe level of consumption’. There is no legal requirement to list trans fats on nutritional labels, but we can avoid them by steering clear of processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, pies and margarines and avoiding hydrogenated or any kind of ‘hardened’ vegetable fat on food labels.

Butter is better. Despite their ‘low-fat’ credentials, it appears that pro-inflammatory vegetable oils and margarines are not as heart-friendly as once thought. We recommend opting for omega-9-rich olive oil and coconut oil, especially when cooking at heat. We also prefer to use butter instead of artificially hardened vegetable oil spreads.

Omega-3. With its anti-inflammatory properties now needed more than ever, we should all be making an effort to squeeze more omega-3 into our diets. Simple lifestyle tweaks can make all the difference. Aim to eat oily fish once or twice a week to get a broad range of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats (vegetarians can take algae-based supplements). When shopping for meat, look out for ‘grass’ or ‘pasture-fed’ varieties which have a higher omega-3 content than their grain-fed alternatives.

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