The Health Halo of Low Fat Foods
Posted by , MS, RD, LD, FADA

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In the course of my work, I’ve participated in a nutrition discussion with a mom’s club. An intriguing takeaway was the group’s chatter about whether looking for “low fat” claims on food packages was a way to identify healthier products. This group is not alone. A recent study published in Appetite suggests there’s a health halo associated with low fat foods. In the group of 175 young women studied, results showed they believe foods labeled “low fat” are healthier and better tasting than the regular product. Study participants also underestimated the calories in low fat foods.

In the 2013 Food and Health Survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, seven out of ten consumers indicate they are trying to eat as little fat as possible. Forty-nine percent are limiting or avoiding trans fat, 48% saturated fat, and 25% indicate they are limiting or avoiding mono- and polyunsaturated fats (MUFAs and PUFAS), which are actually healthier options. No more than half of those surveyed could identify a key source of unsaturated fats.

Combined, these data suggest consumers are confused when making choices related to fat. “Low fat” claims on product packages may seem like a helpful tool, but in reality, this claim adds to the confusion. When fat is removed from a food, it’s often replaced with sugar, refined carbohydrates, or sodium to add back the flavor and texture that are lost when fat is removed. Additionally, MUFAs and PUFAs can have positive impacts on health when used in place of trans or saturated fat. The goal isn’t to avoid all fat, but to choose fats wisely, aiming for those with a better fat profile like canola, olive and sunflower oils and natural sources of omega-3 fats like salmon, halibut, tuna and other fatty fish.

This research is also a reminder to all health professionals that we still have work to do to ensure consumers have a clear understanding of the fat category, how to make healthy choices in packaged foods and where to find natural sources of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. While there have been discussions in regulatory circles about eliminating the “low fat” claim on food packages, this isn’t on the current docket of the federal regulatory agencies. The good news is, however, the IFIC Survey found that 84% of consumers believe information provided by those with a degree in health or nutrition. Additionally, the study shows 61% of consumers believe information when heard multiple times from the same source, showcasing the importance of ongoing education and repeated messages.

While many moms in the group I met with indicated they used to rely on a “low fat” claim as an identifier of healthier foods, they’ve come to realize that not all “low fat” products are better choices. They now know it’s about the quality and type of fat, not necessarily the amount. Perhaps the health halo of low fat foods is being tarnished with an end result of better food choices. What do you think? Let us know!

 

Is less always more? The effects of low-fat labeling and caloric information on food intake, calorie estimates, taste preference, and health attributions. Daria S. Ebneter. Janet D. Latner, Claudio R. Nigg, Appetite, Volume 68, 1 September 2013, Pages 92–97.