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Inside Our Food

What Makes a Food Product Low-fat?

What does low-fat mean? How is fat removed from yoghurt and what is the impact on its nutritional value?

What does low-fat mean?

Food manufacturers like to use “claims” to point out the nutritional benefits of their products. One such claim is “low-fat”. However, they cannot stick a label on their products at random; it needs to be backed up with something credible.

As a rule of thumb, a product can only be labelled as “low-fat” if it contains less than 3g of fat per 100g for solid foods. This means that 30% or less of the calories come from fat.1 For liquids, this is 1.5g of fat per 100ml.2

But why would fat be removed from food in the first place? Isn’t fat important?

Why is fat important?

Fats are nutrients in food that the body uses to build nerve tissue (including the brain) and hormones. The body also uses fat as fuel. If fats eaten aren’t burned as energy or used as building blocks, they’re stored by the body in fat cells.

Oils and fats are the primary sources of energy for the body. They are also carriers of flavour and vitamin compounds and can change the texture of food. In manufactured food, fats act as a heat transfer medium, lubricant, release agent and texturizing agent.3

However, not all fats are equally good for you. You’ve probably heard of trans fats, and know that it’s better to stay away from them. Instead, consume more of the healthy unsaturated fats which can be found in nuts, seeds and olive oil, all of which can help your body absorb crucial nutrients that contribute to overall health.  These unsaturated fats can be beneficial even on a low-fat diet.

So, not all fats are bad. In fact, some studies observed that people who eat full-fat dairy products tend to be just as healthy or even healthier than those who go for low-fat products.4

It’s better to focus on the types of fat in food instead of how much of them are present. Yoghurt, for example, contains 70% saturated fats. Fatty acids in milk and yoghurt are proven to be good for heart health, whereas saturated fats in processed red meats have been shown to cause heart disease and certain cancers.5

Why and how are manufacturers making low-fat yoghurt?

Different manufacturers have different reasons. Some might use “low-fat” purely as a marketing tool, while others might see it as genuine health innovation. Either way, removing fat from a product has an inevitable impact on the flavour. So food companies have to compensate for that fat reduction. Let's take the example of yoghurt. 

Flavour

Yoghurt has the same fat percentage as the milk used to make it. This means that traditional whole milk yoghurt is higher in fat than yoghurt made with skim or low-fat milk. On the one hand, the choice of milk is how manufacturers reduce fat grams in yoghurt.7 On the other hand, fat plays an important part in the tastefulness of food. Plain yoghurt has a rich taste to it, whereas yoghurt made with low-fat milk can have a rather unpleasant taste.

Fat & Flavour Replacements

To make up for the lack of flavour by the elimination of fats, manufacturers use different ingredients (like fruit, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners etc.) to improve the tastefulness.8 As you probably know, high-sugar products are not healthy. Moreover, preservatives and food colourings are often added to increase yoghurt's shelf life and make it look more delicious. To improve the texture of low-fat yoghurt, manufacturers also add thickeners like gelatin, gum, or starch.9

What about the nutritional value?

But yoghurts aren’t just fat; they also contain other nutrients, such as calcium. Some studies say that by using low-fat or skim milk to produce low-fat yoghurt, the amount of calcium and protein will also be reduced.10 Others say that calcium is found in the liquid part of the milk, which means that calcium isn’t removed along with the fat. Therefore, reduced-fat dairy products provide just as much calcium as regular products.11

The bottom line

While many researchers are still studying the full-fat dairy paradox, we know that fats give food products its flavour and texture. So, by removing fats, manufacturers are burdened with the challenge of creating high-quality, reduced-fat food products. In the end, more sugar and sweeteners are added to the product to compensate for the taste (even though the calorie amount in the end product may be lower than the full-fat alternative!). But don’t forget, even if you follow a low-fat diet, your body still needs fats, and fats in yoghurt can be good for you. You may want to consider removing fats from your diet elsewhere if you want to reduce your fat intake, like by eating more foods that are naturally low in fat.

 

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