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Many low-fat foods 'stuffed full of calories'

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The Guardian says that “many ‘low fat’ foods have a similar calorie count to standard products”.

The news follows a press release by Which? magazine that said many “low fat” and “light” food products may not be the healthy options that consumers think they are.

Foods can be low in fat but still have a relatively high calorie count if they have high levels of sugar.

Which? found that six in ten consumers reported eating these foods under the misconception that they were healthier than standard products when they actually often contained a higher amount of sugar and the same number of calories.

For example, Which? found that a standard McVitie’s chocolate digestive contained 85 calories; a light one had 77, and the 8 calorie “saving” could be burned off in less than a minute of swimming or running.

The consumer body’s overall advice for people trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight is to read food labels carefully, particualry labels related to calorie content (sometimes calories are listed as kcals – 1,000 calories – so a kcal of 1.5 would be 1,500 calories).

Ultimately, consumers should never assume that “low-fat” or “light” means “healthy”.

Who conducted the research?

Which? is the consumer watchdog that conducts regular reviews looking into a variety of consumer products from household goods to food. Today it gave a breakdown of its research into the calorie, fat, sugar and salt content of leading brands and supermarkets’ own brands of various food items, including cheese, margarine, pizza and chocolate snacks.

How was the research carried out?

Which? reports that in August this year 1,005 UK residents were surveyed online about their consumption of low-fat, reduced-fat and light foods. They were asked:

  • how often they ate these foods
  • the reasons they chose to eat these foods
  • what they thought the terms low-fat, reduced-fat and light meant

Which? then took sample of 12 low-fat, reduced-fat and light products from across all supermarkets, and compared them with their standard full-fat counterparts, looking at total calories and fat, sugar, and salt content. The survey looked at a range of different foods, and a range of different brands.

The definitions they worked to were:

  • “low fat” means less than 3% fat
  • “reduced fat”, “light” and “lite” mean 30% less fat than the standard or original product
  • more than 20g fat per 100g (20%) makes a product high in fat
  • more than 5g saturated fat per 100g (5%) makes a product high in saturated fat

What were the main findings of the research?

The researchers listed the calories, and fat, salt and sugar content, of various foods, showing that many low or reduced-fat options offer only small reductions in the overall calorie count. See the comparison results on the Which? website

The consumer survey showed that 60% of participants reported eating low-fat, reduced-fat or light foods under the misconception that they are automatically healthier. It is also likely that some people actually consume more calories while eating low-fat foods because they eat more of it than they would of a full-fat version. The Which? website cites research from Cornell University in the US that showed that people who were given products labelled as light and low fat ate up to 50% more than they did with the same standard product.

The researchers also point out that products labelled as reduced fat, light or lite only have to contain 30% less fat than the standard versions, yet this was understood by only 16% of people surveyed. Some cheeses, for example, have 30% less fat than their standard version but are still high-fat products.

What are the conclusions and recommendations of Which?

Which? says that its research has uncovered misconceptions about what “reduced fat”, “low fat” and “light” mean.

Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: “Consumers are choosing ‘low-fat’ and ‘light’ options believing them to be a healthier choice, but our research has found that in many cases they’re just not living up to their healthy image. Our advice to consumers is to read the nutritional labels carefully.”

Which? has been campaigning for supermarkets to add clearer, traffic-light style labelling to packaging so consumers can make an informed choice about what they eat and have a better understanding of what terms such as “low fat” or “light” really mean. An example of the recommended labeling can be seen on the picture for this article.

Which? calls on the two remaining supermarkets yet to adopt the traffic light labelling system - Morrisons and Iceland - do so as soon as possible.

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