“Fat-Free” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Healthy

2/15/19
WRITTEN BY: T'ara Smith, MS, Nutrition Education
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So, you’re at your local grocery store, trying to decide between two versions of the same food. Let’s say this food is peanut butter. One is regular peanut butter and the other is reduced-fat peanut butter. Intuitively, you think that the reduced-fat peanut butter is healthier because who wouldn’t want to indulge in peanut butter while saving on grams of fat?

But, before you put the reduced-fat peanut butter in your cart, compare both labels to determine which one has the better nutritional value. In this instance, it’s important to know how to read a food label  and to understand the terms “fat-free” or “low-sodium.” The terms “free”, “less”, “low” and “lite” all mean different things, despite their synonymous definitions. Being aware of the general terms can help you make educated decisions while grocery shopping. Depending on your health and health goals, you may want to cut back on fat, sodium, sugar, or cholesterol.

Almost any food can be labeled reduced, low, or free of a nutrient.  but here are some you’re probably buying regularly from the supermarket.

  • Yogurt
  • Cream Cheese
  • Cheese
  • Canned vegetables or fruit
  • Juice/Soda
  • Sour Cream
  • Salad Dressings
  • Ketchup and Mayonnaise
  • Jellies and Jams
  • Nut Butters
  • Milk
  • Bread

Take a look at the definitions below to learn what it means when companies label their products as a healthier version of its regular counterpart.

Free: Anything that’s doesn’t include a specific nutrient can be labeled free of that nutrient. For instance, if you were to eat Greek yogurt that didn’t have fat, then the label would correctly state “fat-free Greek yogurt,” but, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthier alternative because it may be high in sugar and calories. 

Less/Reduced: At least 25 percent less of a specific nutrient or calories than the regular version.

Low: Any food that’s naturally low in a specific nutrient can make this claim, but it also means that you could consume that food frequently without exceeding the daily value for that nutrient.

Starting to understand? Let’s go a little further. Below are specific definitions that constitutes some foods as “low”, “reduced” and “free” of sodium, fat, cholesterol and sugar products in terms of grams. A comprehensive guide can also be found on the FDA Labeling & Nutrition website. This information can also be found in the book Understanding Nutrition.

Nutrient Free Less/Reduced Low
Fat Less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving, with no added fat or oil. At least 25 percent less fat than the regular version. 3 grams or less of fat per serving.
Saturated Fat

Less than 0.5 gram of saturated fat and 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving.

Trans-Fat:

Less than 0.5 gram of trans fat and less than 0.5 gram of saturated fat per serving.

25 percent or less of saturated and trans fat combined than its regular counterpart. 1 gram or less of saturated fat and less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving.
Sodium Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving. 25 percent less sodium than the regular version.

140 mg or less per serving.

Very Low: 

35 mg or less per serving.

Cholesterol Less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of both saturated and trans fat per serving. 25 percent or less cholesterol than it’s regular counterpart and 2 grams or less of both saturated and trans fat per serving. 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of both saturated and trans fat per serving.
Sugar

Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.

No added sugar/without added sugar: No ingredient that contains sugar is added during packaging/processing. 

25 percent less sugar than the regular version. N/A

So, this means I’m saving calories because I’m selecting healthier alternatives, right? 

That depends on the product and which nutrient is being eliminated for another. As stated earlier with the fat-free Greek yogurt example, you could forgo one nutrient, but end up consuming more of others. If you have vanilla fat-free Greek yogurt that has 190 calories per serving and also has 28 grams of carbs, including 25 grams of sugar. Again, that’s per serving, which, for this example, is 1 cup. That isn’t to say that this yogurt isn’t unhealthy, or that foods with any of the terms I listed earlier aren’t healthy. However, you shouldn’t assume that they are, either. You should evaluate the food based on their ingredients, nutrients and their percent Daily Values, and your personal health goals.

However, if you’re dealing with health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, high-blood pressure, or obesity, then consider sugar-free, low-sodium, low-fat and cholesterol items to control blood sugar and pressure. Choose foods naturally low in sugar, high in fiber, fat (especially saturated and trans fat), sodium, and cholesterol to manage your health such as fruits, nuts, avocados, fish, chicken breast and other lean meats, legumes, and oils like olive and canola oil. If you choose to use artificial sweeteners, understand which ones are calorie-free and how sweet different brands are. 

But, nevertheless, knowing all of these terms or understanding what it means when you see the claims “free”, “reduced”, and the like on labels can make a world of a difference on how you shop at the supermarket, especially when it comes to processed foods. No more uneducated shopping decisions! This is a way to take full control over your food decisions that will affect your health and help you understand jargon that confuses a lot of consumers.

Key Takeaways: 

1. Always read the label first. Don’t assume just because a food product is labeled “fat-free” or similar, that it’s healthier; the perceived healthier item could be higher in sugar and calories.

2. If you’re living with diabetes, choose unprocessed and whole foods naturally low in fat, sugar, and sodium, in general.

3. Maintaining a balanced diet is key. However, you should consult a dietician, nutritionist, or a Certified Diabetes Educator to create a diet plan that works for you.

 


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