Do Low Fat Foods Taste Good?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
It’s almost universally agreed that in most cases, low- or lower-fat versions of store-bought foods just don’t taste the same, and certainly not as good, as their full-fat counterparts. When fat is removed, something usually takes its place. This often involves adding a surprisingly long list of ingredients. Although some low-fat dairy products, such as plain low-fat yogurt and fat-free milk, are mostly additive-free, many other lower-fat or fat-free products are not.

Take cream cheese, for example. I have two tubs in my refrigerator: the regular version, which lists eight ingredients, and the fat-free version, which lists 15—almost twice as many! So what on earth is in the fat-free version?

Out with the Fat, In With the Sugar, Sodium and Gum

Sugar is near the top of the list in fat-free cream cheese. Emulsifiers—which help ingredients stick together—and thickeners account for most of the rest of the extra ingredients. For some reason, coloring is added, making what I thought was a perfectly white cream cheese, um, white. But sure, there’s no fat, and almost no cholesterol. Oddly, despite sugar’s high-placed listing, there’s only 1 gram of sugars per serving in the fat-free cream cheese, compared with 2 grams in regular cream cheese, which doesn’t list sugar at all (but sugar comes in many disguises, as our Low Carb Diets Guide can tell you). Sodium content is much higher in the fat-free version.

Simply put, fat’s function is to add flavor and texture to foods. Sugars, salts and chemical flavorings are routinely used to replace flavor in lower-fat products; and odd-sounding ingredients such as carrageenan, xanthan gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, sodium alginate, among many others, are added to thicken a product or hold it together. These special ingredients are called fat replacers, and can be derived from carbohydrate-, protein- or, funnily enough, fat-based sources (chemically modified, of course). With all these additives, it’s no wonder low-fat foods taste so different. Or do they? After all, the function of these fat replacers is to replicate the many qualities that fat gives to a food, including taste.

The Taste Test

My fourth-grader, who was looking for a fun science-fair project, thought it would be interesting to see if people really could taste the difference between full-fat foods and their reduced-fat/low-fat or fat-free counterparts, without knowing which was which beforehand. Her hypothesis was that in almost all instances, people would be able to taste a difference, and know which version was which. Her results, after testing 11 different foods on 11 people (a mix of kids and adults), were not so clear cut.

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