Food writer Mark Ruhlman was at the grocery store the other day when the woman ahead of him put fat-free half-and-half on the conveyor belt at the supermarket. “Do you know what they replace the fat with?” he asked her. The second ingredient on that list, after skim milk, was corn syrup. The woman frowned, but she put it back on the conveyor belt.
Way to play into everyone’s fear that there’s a judgy food writer lurking behind you, disapproving of your shopping choices. But that aside, Ruhlman makes a good point in his essay No food is healthy. Not even kale. Many of us make what we think are healthy choices, but actually we’re just falling for clever marketing.
When food companies try to reduce or remove the fat in a food, they almost always end up swapping in some other artificial fillers, flavors or additives. Worse, that process strips the food of nutrients or at least makes it hard for your body to absorb the nutrients.
Here are some foods that truly go to the dark side when they go “light” — fat free or reduced fat.
1. Yogurt: Without that creamy mouthfeel from milk fat, food companies compensate by adding sweeteners (like corn syrup) and thickeners like carrageenan, which can cause inflammation and other digestive problems. And that’s kind of the opposite of what eating yogurt is supposed to do for you.
2. Ice cream: Mono- and diglycerides are popular additives in fat-free and reduced-fat ice cream (among other foods) and what some nutritionists say can cause inflammation and other health problems. Another additive in some low-fat ice cream is ice-structuring protein, which The New York Times describes as “a protein cloned from the blood of an eel-like Arctic Ocean fish, the ocean pout.” It’s actually most often made by altering the genetic code of baker’s yeast.
3. Butter substitutes: A fat-free butter-flavored spread may contain mono- and diglycerides along with rice starch, gelatin and a long list of other ingredients. Not to mention they always leave that gross greasy residue on the roof of your mouth. Ugh.
4. Salad dressing: They taketh away the oil, and they giveth extra sugar instead. That is the story of every low-fat bottled salad dressing. Worse, you actually need a little fat to absorb vitamins, so that almost defeats the purpose of eating salad in the first place. Opt instead for a little olive or sesame oil.
5. Coffee creamer: Oh, hello again, mono- and diglycerides. The second ingredient listed in one popular fat-free creamer is corn syrup. The dry creamer contains hydrogenated oils and oleic oil, which is (usually) soybean oil that’s been genetically modified.
6. Mayonnaise: The whole point of mayonnaise is to flavor your food with egg yolk and oil. Take those away, and you’ve got another long list of cheap food additives, like modified cornstarch, high-fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum and cellulose gel.
7. Potato chips: A few years ago there was a scandal about potato chips made with olestra, a fat substitute famous for its, shall we say, antisocial, digestively disastrous side effects. Surprisingly the FDA still allows olestra (sometimes listed as Olean) in foods like potato chips. Buyer be warned.
8. Cheese: A leading brand’s fat-free cheese singles contain 30 milligrams more sodium than the original cheese singles and a much longer list of ingredients, including dried corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, carrageenan, cellulose and xanthan gum.
9. Peanut butter: Hold the original beside the reduced-fat versions of the same brand of peanut butter, and you may notice that you’re simply swapping fat for sugar, often with no difference in calorie count. Your body will use that fat better than it will use the sugar.
10. Skim milk: More and more nutritionists agree, whole-fat milk is better for you than skim or reduced-fat milk. Like other low-fat foods, skim milk contains additives that can undermine your health goals. Not only that, but it can leave you feeling less satisfied, so you end up eating more of something else, probably something that’s not very nutritious.
You’ve probably picked up on a pattern by now: Take out the fat, and you’re going to have to add in something else that’s worse than a little fat to make that food taste better. Another unfortunate effect of fat-free eating is that delusional feeling that you can eat as much of it as you want. People often end up eating more calories when they turn to low-fat or fat-free options.
On the flip side, nutritionists and doctors are learning that the fats found in whole foods are not as terrible for us as we used to think. In fact, some of them come with important health benefits. So stop marching along to that depressing fat-free music, and enjoy (a moderate amount of) something with fat and flavor. Go on, make the delicious choice.