26. 07. 2011

Low-fat labels are designed to seduce shoppers with promises of slim waistlines, but the reality can be quite the opposite. Several products bear the "low fat" or "fat free" claim, from yoghurt and ice-cream to lollies, smoothies and cake mix, but are they really healthy?

"For many products, low fat equals high sugar, and it's doing a big fat zero for your diet," says Associate Professor David Cameron-Smith, of the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University. "It's certainly not improving your waistline and it's not doing anything to reduce your risk of heart disease. It's a real consumer trap."

In some cases, the higher sugar levels outweigh the benefits of the lower fat contents, as Professor Kerin O'Dea, director of the Sansom Institute for Health Research at the University of South Australia, explains: "Many low-fat food products actually have more energy in them than the plain full-fat version. Yoghurts are a fantastic example."

She points out that Vaalia Low Fat Vanilla yoghurt contains 27 calories more per 100-gram serve than Farmers Union Natural European Style yoghurt. This is because Vaalia's modest 1.4 grams of fat is overwhelmed by a whopping 16.5 grams of sugar - 10 grams more than the Farmers Union product.

"Many people think fat is the key issue, that it's more important than calories, and it's not," O'Dea says. In fact, sugar converts to body fat faster than fat does, and studies indicate 60 per cent of the sugar an overweight person consumes is directly converted into body fat.

The other concern is that low-fat foods encourage people to eat more, as they are more inclined to have a second scoop of ice-cream if it is 99 per cent fat free. Furthermore, sugar stimulates the appetite and portion sizes are getting bigger, O'Dea says. "I've posed the question: is the low-fat food movement one of the drivers of the obesity epidemic?"

The latest studies appear to support this, with US researchers finding people's calorie consumption has increased since the introduction of low-fat foods.

TURNING BACK TO LABELS

In Australia, advocacy group The Parents Jury is lobbying for "traffic-light" labelling, so if a food is low in fat but high in sugar, it would get a red light for sugar on the packaging.

When it comes to the fine print, body+soul nutritionist Lisa Guy says you should look for products with less than 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams. "And if sugar is in the first three ingredients, it's not likely to be great for your waistline, even if it's 'fat free'."

Of course, this is not to suggest that all low-fat products are bad for you; in some cases, low-fat products are both healthy and weight-loss friendly. "There are low-fat items that do take away excess energy," Cameron-Smith says.

Guy agrees and recommends "all adults and kids over two use a low-fat milk, because it cuts down the saturated fats in your diet".

It is a good idea to avoid trans and saturated fats wherever possible - but not to swap a small amount of fat for a glut of sugar, Cameron-Smith says. "Having a dollop of high-fat creamy natural yoghurt is better than having a tub of sugary low-fat yoghurt."

O'Dea says the low-fat food trend began for good reasons, but we have since become so preoccupied with fat levels that we have neglected other aspects of our diet. Fats are vital to our diet, and stripping them out won't deliver healthy or slimming outcomes. Good fats - in nuts, oily fish, avocados and oils - actually help your body burn fat and absorb vitamins and minerals, which in turn keeps your hunger at bay.

As a general rule, you are better off with natural, unprocessed foods over those with big fat "low-fat" labels. Your food shouldn't need to advertise its benefits.

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