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What's really in your fat free, sugar free food?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Fat-free, sugar-free claims could mean less nutrition

Food manufacturers may be duping us by having us believe fat free, lower salt or sugar free foods are healthy. But are they? What's really in your fat-free, lower salt, sugar free food?


Making healthy food choices can be a daunting task especially when food manufacturing labels make claims that might not be in your best interest.

Researchers from University of North Carolina recently conducted a study to find out what's really in so-called healthy foods. The result might surprise you.

The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, challenges the way food packaging is labeled and stirs up an ongoing debate about nutrition claims on packaging.

Low sugar, low fat, low nutrition

Lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health warns some products that are high calories, salt, sugar or fat "..may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims."

Foods that have lower sugar fat and salt are also often those that are lowest in nutritional quality.

For example, if you think your low fat chocolate milk is a good choice, you may have to rethink that purchase.

The fat content may be lower but you're getting more sugar than in whole milk and more fat and sugar compared to other beverages.

Read: Harvard pediatrician explains why milk isn't good for you

The reason food labels can be deceiving is because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows it. Food manufacturers can label products differently, depending on the nutrient that is altered.

Your cookies might be a few calories lighter, but there might be no difference in the the amount of sugar. All the food industry has to do is change a product slightly from the original or from a comparable 'full fat' or 'full calorie' item, which means the term reduced doesn't always mean healthier.

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"Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient," Tailie said in a media release.

To add to food label confusion, products that are low in whatever are allowed to be labeled as such if they are less fat or sugar than what we usually eat (reference amount customarily consumed, or RACC) -.to be imprecise.

Cheesecake, for instance, could be labeled low fat if it has less than 125 grams of fat. On the other hand, your low fat brownie might have 40 grams of fatty stuff in it.

Relatively speaking, that brownie has more fat than the cheesecake, Taillie explains.

The study found the most popular low content claims in food; in order are:

  • Low-calorie
  • Low-sodium
  • Low-sugar

Thirty-five percent of beverages and 13 percent of foods purchased by household families from 2008 to 2012 had some sort of low content claim, the researchers discovered.

More reading: Why low fat diets don't work

They also found different groups of people buy different types of low content foods.

  • Asians bought more low salt, low fat foods
  • Non-Hispanic whites purchased more groceries labeled low-calorie
  • Non Hispanic blacks were the least likely to buy low fat or other low content foods
  • Higher and middle income families bought more of any kind of low-content foods

Making healthy choices by reading labels instead of packaging claims is the only way to make nutritionally sound food choices until food manufacturers decide to come clean.

Unless food manufacturers and special interest groups become more honest with food labeling, it's up to us to read and know what's really in our low-fat, low-salt, low-calorie food. Just because it's labeled lower content doesn't mean it's necessarily so.

Journal reference:

"No Fat, No Sugar, No Salt . . . No Problem? Prevalence of “Low-Content” Nutrient Claims and Their Associations with the Nutritional Profile of Food and Beverage Purchases in the United States"
Smith Taillie, Shu Wen Ng, Ya Xue, Emily Busey, Matthew Harding
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.01.011