Low-fat products can have a higher content of added sugar or other processed carbohydrates

Don’t be worried about putting a bit oil on your salad or veges, but don’t overdo the foods with the reduced fat claims.  That is the message from a Deakin University study just published in Public Health Nutrition which shows that many of the foods claiming low fat status are in fact packed with energy.  At least 25 per cent of those low fat products did not meet the labelling standards for food claims. On the other hand, about 50 vegetable-based recipes that contained quite a lot of oil were not very energy dense. 

Ms Helen La Fontaine, the Deakin researcher who conducted the study in three Melbourne supermarkets, was surprised by the amount of energy contained in foods that were advertised with claims such as ‘low fat’, ‘light’, and ‘diet’.

“I would think that many people buying these products would be weight conscious and therefore expect them to be lower in energy.  Indeed they are lower compared to their high fat counterparts but they are still very energy packed,” Ms La Fontaine said.  “Many of the low-fat products have a much higher content of added sugar or other processed carbohydrates.” 

The standard measure of energy density is the number of kilojoules per gram of a product.  The energy density of the Australian diet, not counting beverages, is 5.1 kJ/g.  By contrast the foods with reduced fat claims had an average energy density of 7.7 kJ/g.  Current research suggests that the higher the energy density of the diet, the more likely people are to over-consume total energy and gain weight. 

“People who are watching their weight do need to switch from the high fat choices, but also need to be careful not to overeat the low fat products.  A better choice is to have a diet that has a higher proportion of vegetables and fruit and whole grain cereals,” said Ms La Fontaine.

The analysis of the vegetable dishes showed a very low energy density of 3.9 kJ/g despite their high vegetable oil content.  Ms La Fontaine explained that since vegetables are high in water content, they usually maintain their low energy density despite the added oil, although French fries are an exception. 

“French fries were not included in the analyses, even though they are probably the most common so-called vegetable dish eaten in Australia,” Ms La Fontaine said.  “The large cut chips have an energy density of about 10 kJ/g and the thin shoestring ones are about 12.5 kJ/g, so both are very energy dense.”

The labelling and policy implications of the study are substantial and highly topical as Food Standards Australia New Zealand is currently reviewing the standards for nutrition and health claims.  Professor Boyd Swinburn, a co-author on the study, said that the food industry is now the default nutrition educator for the public and the risks of deceptive claims are very high. 

“At least a quarter of the low fat products in our study failed to meet the food industry’s own code of practice for labelling,” Professor Swinburn said.  “Consumers are now reading labels more closely and many of them are looking for nutrition claims, so the potential for the food marketers to mislead the public is substantial.  FSANZ needs to ensure that the public is better protected from claims that either mislead or promote over-consumption.”

Professor Swinburn urged FSANZ to include energy density criteria in any labelling which implies that the product is low in fat or energy or contains terms like ‘diet’ and ‘light’.  

For further information please contact Ms Helen La Fontaine (0413 200 330) or Professor Boyd Swinburn (03 9251 7096 or 0407 539 941).

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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