Last night I watched Channel 4’s Dispatches Programme on low fat foods (8pm); it took a critical view at the low fat food industry and questioned the general public’s understanding of these foods which we can’t seem to get enough of – we spend £5billion pounds on low fat foods each year!
I get that fat can make food very appealing; it provides a nice smooth feel in the mouth and when combined with sugar, the taste is sweet, delicious and satisfying. As the programme said, ‘fat is greasy, gooey and we love it!’ On the other hand, it is making our waist lines expand and it is bad for our heart and health.
So is low fat food the answer? Not according to the findings in this programme!
So what exactly is a low fat or reduced fat food?
They are NOT the same (the majority of people have no idea).
- A low fat product contains less than 3% fat (<3g fat per 100g)
- A reduced fat or ‘lighter’ product contains 30% less fat than the standard product – this does NOT necessarily make it low fat.
What is the problem with a low fat food?
When removing fat from a product, it needs to be replaced with something else and there is no limit on how much of the other ingredient is added; often fat is replaced with sugar. The low fat products often have more sugar in them than the full fat equivalent!
The key advice from the programme was to be very careful when picking your items off the shelf – make no assumption the lower fat product is actually healthier; whether coming from fat or sugar, Calories are Calories, it doesn’t matter where they come from; the excess Calories we are consuming today from processed foods are contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
How useful are food labels in making healthier choices?
Food labels have improved (and are continuing to improve); the introduction of the traffic light system helps us identify foods at a glance that are low in fat (green) or high in fat (red) but did you know that a reduced fat food can still be high in fat?! (and labelled red). There have been a number of discussions about the misleading nature of food labels; we get drawn in by the healthy images and nutritional claims (i.e. a food is reduced fat) but how can a food be labelled as such when it has such a high sugar content? Again, we are being drawn in by these attractive marketing claims but something needs to change if food labels are going to help us make overall healthy choices.
Professor Theresa Marteau, a leading researcher in health behaviour was interviewed and asked how food labels can influence our food choices. She said ‘if a food is labelled as low fat, we tend to eat much more of it’
This is for 2 reasons:
- we underestimate the Calories in the low fat product (as we assume it is entirely healthy and so justify we can eat more)
- we have reduced feelings of guilt (so we can justify eating more)
How reliable is the nutritional information anyway?
What surprised me most in the programme was the fact that the nutritional information provided on food labels (and this information dictates which traffic light colour the food is given) is not necessarily accurate! Apparently there is a 30% margin of error for the amount of a particular nutrient (i.e. fat) stated on the label. This means that some foods on our shelves contain 30-50% more fat than is being claimed on the label.
What then shocked me was that the food companies themselves are responsible for obtaining this nutritional data that supports their own nutritional claims! I smell a rat here…….When the reporter questioned a member of the Food and Drink Federation about this, he was obviously squirming in his seat and like a politician, tried very hard not to answer directly. The various food companies that were also questioned about the accuracy of their food data all confirmed their food labels were correct, although one company did admit that perhaps one of the food handlers was a bit generous with the cheese on a pie topping Hmmm.
So the bottom line is this – be a little cynical when doing your shopping and be careful when making choices about what to put in your trolley. Low fat foods are not necessarily the answer to your prayers; if you stick to eating things in moderation and watch the sugar and the fat, you should be moving in the right direction.