A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is fat free food safe?

October 20, 1995

Dear Cecil:

In trying to eat healthy, I have started to buy "fat-free" or "light" versions of the real thing, whatever it may be. But I started to wonder: how do they get it to be fat free? Is it chock full of chemicals that will slowly fester in my body until it explodes? Is fat free food really safe to eat?

Cecil replies:

Don't be so paranoid. Being chock full of chemicals has resulted in some of the most entertaining moments of my life. Granted, we're not talking about quite the same thing with SnackWells. While there is no single method of making a food fat free, generally what you try to do is substitute some ingredient (e.g., milk and egg protein, enzyme-treated oat bran, natural gums, or what have you) that approximates the bulk and "mouth feel" of fat without fat's extra calories (nine per gram for fat versus four for carbohydrates and proteins).

Usually these ingredients are more or less natural and presumably harmless, the only drawback being that some of them taste like mattress ticking. To compensate, some food manufacturers add a lot of sugar, with the result that the finished product often contains nearly as many calories as the fatty food it was meant to replace. (This seems to be particularly true of cookies.) The stuff does, however, qualify for a big zero (or at least some impressively small number) on the "fat grams" line in the nutrition box on the back of the package, and in the minds of tunnel-visioned weight watchers, that's often enough.

Whatever you may think of the final product, you have to give food makers credit for ingenuity. Some fat substitutes are a triumph of the food technologist's art. NutraSweet's Simplesse, for example, consists of whey protein (a cheesemaking byproduct) that has been fashioned into microscopic spheres that roll around the tongue like little ball bearings, simulating the smooth, creamy feel of real fat.

Still, "ingenious" doesn't necessarily mean "good for you." Procter & Gamble's fat substitute olestra, for one, has long been controversial due to concerns about its effect on health. FDA approval was delayed for many years because some feared that the stuff inhibited vitamin E uptake, among other things. Olestra was finally OK'd in 1996 but some food groups, notably the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), continue to oppose it; see CSPI's page on the subject at www.cspinet.org/olestra/index.html. A response from the Ohio State University Food Science and Technology Department can be found at www-fst.ag.ohio-state.edu/Archive/olestra.htm. (Link now defunct.)  A detailed discussion from the UK's Institute of Food Science and Technology can be found at http://www.ifst.org/fatreplacers/. Olestra does cause stomach upset, loose stools, etc., in some individuals but the majority view at the moment is that this doesn't have medical consequences.

Many dieticians fear that weight-watchers will consume fat-free products so obsessively that they won't eat a balanced diet — neglecting their daily fiber quota, for example. Equally worrisome, people may figure eating a fat-free food is an excuse to heavy up on some other artery-clogger, the rationale for such well-known breakfasts of champions as Ho-Hos and Diet Coke.

On the other hand, if you apply to a modicum of intelligence to your eating habits, fat-free foods offer genuine benefits. Low-fat mayo, for example, has half the calories of the regular stuff; no-fat mayo one-eighth. Consumer Reports has calculated that if you replaced fatty foods with no-fat substitutes in a typical daily diet, you could eliminate 275 calories and reduce your calories-from-fat intake from 36 percent to 26 percent, well below the 30 percent recommended by the Surgeon General. Just don't think of fat-free foods as a magic bullet that will let you eat anything you want.

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