Today, health claims on food products are getting bigger and louder in order to catch our attention. With clever marketing tricks, even the most health-conscious consumers can get duped into buying the wrong products.
Products labeled “low-fats”, “fat-free”, etc. are a huge example of this.
A walk down a grocery aisle would make anyone assume that the healthiest products are those that are low in fats, or completely fat-free. Let’s think about it, though – if we’re consuming all this low-fat food, why is obesity still on the rise?1
First, there’s the fact that if it’s low in fat, it’s probably incredibly high in sugar.2
When you reduce the fat in food, it needs to be replaced with water, which makes the consistency watery. So, a ‘stabilizer’ (like gelatin) is added to take care of the thickness – but this may hamper taste. That’s why sugar is increased in these products, so we continue to enjoy them.3, 4
Then there’s the simple truth: Fats are not to be feared!
Fats & Health
Fats are a very important part of our diet and nutrition. Also, eating fat does not necessarily make you fat – it’s the calorie count that matters. Other than the amount, you need to consider the type of fat. Broadly, there are three types:
Trans-fats: Should be completely avoided
Saturated fats, like butter: Good for you in limited quantities
Unsaturated fats, like Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids: these are “good” fats – but be careful of food products that claim to be high in Omega-6!
The “High-in-Omega-6” Claim
While Omega-6 fatty acids serve several needs of our body, they must still be limited in consumption, because the modern diet is already rich in Omega-6. Since our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio helps keep the immune system balanced, excess Omega-6 causes our immune system to flare up unnecessarily. This may lead to allergies, gum disease, heart blockages, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer.5
Let’s look at some of the other fat-related claims on food products:
The Low-Fat Claim
“Low fat” means that the product has less than 3g of fat per 100g (for food), or less than 1.5g of fat per 100ml (for drinks).2
A product light on fat can also be heavy on calories, by way of added sugar. This is generally in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is less satiating than glucose.6 Because of this, you often end up overeating, without realising that you’re full. Fats, on the contrary, are filling and can help curb overeating.
The “Light/Lite” Claim
Manufacturers can put this claim on a food product if it contains 30% less fats or calories than the standard version.2, 7 This does not mean the product is low-fat or healthy. Once again, there’s a strong chance that sugars may be added to it.
The Fat-Free Claim
These products have less than 0.5g fat per 100g serving.8 When good fats are essential in a balanced diet, why would this be desirable? On top of added sugars, these products may make you overeat, by decreasing “consumption guilt”.1
Now that we’re aware of the fact that most of these products have added sugar in them, here’s a little note on how sugar affects our body.
Sugar & Health
Sugar, the breakdown product of carbohydrates, is required to fuel all our body’s cells. However, the modern diet contains far more sugar than the body needs.
Excess sugar has harmful effects on metabolism, as it leads to:
– Resistance of cells to the hormone, insulin (see insulin resistance)
– Increase of “bad” cholesterol in blood
– Overactivity of the immune system, leading to complications like stiffness of joints, allergies etc.
Due to this, sugar is one of the leading causes of “lifestyle” diseases like metabolic syndrome, obesity, heart disease, cancer, liver problems and especially type II diabetes.9, 10
If you needed more convincing, here’s the clincher: sugar is very addictive – even more than cocaine. It releases a hormone called dopamine, which affects the reward and pleasure centers of the brain (sugar triggering a bigger “rewarding” sensation than cocaine). Then just as the body does with drugs and alcohol, we develop a resistance to it and start requiring more, for the sameeffects.11, 12
So, bottom-line: Don’t rely on the box to tell you if it’s good – especially if it claims to be low in fat! Simply estimate the nutritional value from food labels, and judge for yourself.
1. Wansink B & Chandon P. Journal of Marketing Research 2006, XLIII: 605-617.
2. Quinn S. Food labels: why ‘low-fat’ and ‘high-fibre’ don’t mean healthy. The Telegraph. 2015.
3. Hui YH, Sherkat F. Handbook of Food Science, Technology, and Engineering – 4 Volume Set. CRC Press, 2005.
4. Schrieber R & Gareis H. Gelatine Handbook: Theory and Industrial Practice. Wiley, 2007.
5. Simopoulos AP. Exp Biol Med (Maywood) 2008, 233(6): 674-688.
6. Page KA, et al. Jama 2013, 309(1): 63-70.
7. FSSAI. Regulation on Labelling (Claims). Ministry of Health and Family Welfare 2012 [cited]Available from: http://www.fssai.gov.in/Portals/0/Pdf/covering%20letter%20for%20draft%20regulation.pdf
8. FDA. A Food Labeling Guide (10. Appendix B: Additional Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims). Guidance for Industry 2013 [cited]Available from: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/UCM265446.pdf
9. Ruiz-Nunez B, et al. J Nutr Biochem 2013, 24(7): 1183-1201.
10. Arcidiacono B, et al. Exp Diabetes Res 2012, 2012: 789174.
11. Avena NM, et al. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2008, 32(1): 20-39.
12. Lenoir M, et al. PLoS ONE 2007, 2(8): e698.