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‘Low fat’ is too simplistic, says Tufts professor

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 18-Feb-2011

Related topics: Fats & oils, R&D

‘Low fat’ is too simplistic a message from a nutritional perspective – and reformulation of high fat foods is not always appropriate, according to a nutrition professor at Tufts University.

Recommendations to reduce saturated fat intake are largely based on the notion that high levels increase risk of cardiovascular disease, but unless saturated fat is replaced with other, healthy fats, many studies have suggested that fat reduction could increase risk of heart disease.

Professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University Alice Lichtenstein told that particularly in the 1990s, the low fat message was widely translated as meaning ‘low calorie’ – which is not necessarily the case – and the idea that ‘low fat’ and ‘low calorie’ are the same thing is still pervasive.

When it comes to reformulating products to be lower in fat, she said: “I think in some cases it’s appropriate. For things like meat products and dairy, it is appropriate because you are focusing specifically on taking out saturated fat. But for other products such as cookies and brownies, it’s not that useful.”

However, Lichtenstein said this hinges on the way in which manufacturers aim to reduce fat in these products. When manufacturers reduce the fat content of baked goods in particular, fat is often replaced with refined carbohydrates, including sugar, which may actually make an already unhealthy product even less healthy than the original.

On the other hand, unsaturated fats for baked goods, such as soybean oil, could provide viable alternatives, she said, and there is still room in the dairy sector for further innovation.

“There is a wide variety of low fat and non fat dairy products available. If [manufacturers] could produce more low fat cheeses that were acceptable to the consumer, that would be good, since we eat so much of it. But we have to be clear about portion size.”

Apart from substituting fat with refined carbohydrates, researchers are also investigating the potential of replacing fat with protein, but Lichtenstein warns against any simplistic response to overconsumption of saturated fat.

“I am always concerned when the default goes to what seems like the simple answer, which is ‘low fat’, and then we end up with unintended consequences,” she said.

Nevertheless, she said that industry has a part to play and urged more collaboration between the government, public health organizations and the food industry.

“If all can partner together to come out with a consistent message that is evidence-based, we would be better off,” she said. “…The US population – and others around the world – could always benefit from more public health education, and the focus should really be on energy balance.”

And there is room for companies’ reformulation efforts in such an approach, including providing lower fat dairy options, as well as adding whole grains and more vegetables to products.

She said: “If more options are available within the context of a healthy diet then the industry would sell its products and health professionals would recommend them. I think there’s room for much more collaboration.”