Fat-Free Doesn't Necessarily Mean Healthy

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? (If anyone tells you otherwise, don't believe them) 

But, before you put the reduced-fat peanut butter in your cart, ask yourself and then compare both labels, which one has the better nutritional value? In another blog post, I talked about how to understand food labels and briefly discussed how to understand the terms "fat-free" or "low-sodium". In this post, I go a little deeper into the subject to help you make educated food choices at the grocery store. Just because something is "fat-free" or "low-fat" doesn't mean it's the healthier option. Check out the nutrition labels for peanut butter below. The left label is for regular creamy peanut butter and the right is the nutrition information for the reduced fat version. Look carefully, what differences do you notice? 

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 low-fat, fat-free, sugar, sodium, etc, 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 it's 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? I hope so! 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

Fat

Fat-Free: Less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving, with no added fat or oil. 

Low-Fat: 3 grams or less of fat per serving. 

Saturated fat-free: Less than 0.5 gram of saturated fat and 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. 

Low Saturated Fat: 1 gram or less of saturated fat and less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. 

Less saturated fat: 25 percent or less of saturated and trans fat combined than it's regular counterpart. 

Trans-fat Free: Less than 0.5 gram of trans fat and less than 0.5 gram of saturated fat per serving. 

Sodium

Sodium/Salt-free: Less than 5 mg of sodium per serving. 

Low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving. 

Very-low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving. 

Cholesterol

Cholesterol-Free: Less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of both saturated and trans fat per serving. 

Low Cholesterol: 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of both saturated and trans fat per serving. 

Less Cholesterol: 25 percent or less cholesterol than it's regular counterpart and 2 grams or less of both saturated and trans fat per serving. 

Sugar

Sugar-free: less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. 

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

No, not necessarily. As I stated earlier with my fat-free Greek yogurt example, you could forgo one nutrient, but end up consuming more of others. I own 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 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 the percent Daily Values, and your personal health goals. I don't think any food is "bad" I just believe that anything in excess is bad for you and that claims on food labels can make it hard to discern which foods are better than others. 

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, keep in mind that sugar-free doesn't mean carbohydrate or fat-free. 

Nutrition info for Great Value Vanilla Non-Fat Greek Yogurt. Pay attention to the carb and sugar content!

Nutrition info for Great Value Vanilla Non-Fat Greek Yogurt. Pay attention to the carb and sugar content!

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. Sometimes, the regular version is better for you. 

2. If you're living with diet-related health issue, choose unprocessed and whole foods naturally low in fat, sugar, and sodium. 

3. There aren't any bad foods. Maintaining a balanced diet is key. 

P.S. 

While you're here, make sure you subscribe to my website and new YouTube channel, where I discuss other topics important to me and relatable to others, like body image, weight loss, and nutrition. If you loved this post, share it with everyone you know! 

Updated: 6/23/18