Special edition: Lower fat foods

‘Low fat’ is too simplistic, says Tufts professor

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

‘Low fat’ is too simplistic, says Tufts professor

Related tags: Nutrition

‘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 FoodNavigator-USA.com 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.”

Related topics: R&D, Fats & oils

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3 comments

Saturated fat meta-analyses.

Posted by Richard Feinman,

the most important recent nutritional results are the meta=analyses showing that saturated fat is not a risk factor for CVD. Moreover, most of the individual studies show no effect. Some of these are twenty years old. Is it Dr. Lichtenstein's position that these reports are irrelevant and to be ignored? If so, why do we keep funding them?

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Promoting "low fat" does more harm than good

Posted by Delia A Hammock, MS, RD,

The widespread and simplistic advice to choose low fat/fat free foods has caused consumers to shun healthful foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, etc. and replace them with heavily processed "low fat" junk foods laden with refined carbs/sugar. A BIG mistake. Mentions of total fat content should be removed from food labels and the consumer re-educated. It won't be easy but it is essential.

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saturated fat from beef or dairy products are NOT harmful

Posted by Dr. Gary Sides,

Beef fat contains 30% stearic acid and 40% oleic acid. Both of these fatty acids lower LDL choloesterol and raise HDL choloesterol. The remaining 30% of saturated fat in beef is neutral for LDL/HDL effects. Therefore, 70% of the total saturated fat in beef is actually hearth healthy. For the past 40 years, we've been told by the dietary experts that everybody needs to eat a low fat high carb diet. The results are today's epidemics of obesity and diabetes. And our lastest guidelines from the same experts two weeks ago recommended the same harmful diets. When will we finally tell the emperor that he has no clothes?

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