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Do Low Fat Foods Really Taste Different?

Putting Taste to the Test

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Regular and Lower Fat Products

Regular and Lower Fat Products

Fiona Haynes

Comparing Low-Fat and Full-Fat Foods

My daughter lined up the following:
  • Regular and reduced-fat Oreo cookies
  • Regular and reduced-fat Pringle’s chips
  • Regular and reduced-fat Cheez-It crackers
  • Regular and fat-free Philadelphia cream cheese
  • Regular and reduced-fat Jif peanut butter
  • Darigold Whole milk and fat-free milk
  • Regular and fat-free Kraft cheese slices
  • Full-fat and fat-free Nancy’s plain yogurt
  • Regular and fat-free chocolate Jell-O pudding
  • Regular and light Haagen Dazs chocolate ice cream
  • Regular and fat-free Archway oatmeal cookies
This was a nice mix of sweet and savory, crunchy and soft foods, with varying degrees of fat taken out.

This One... No, That One

Observing the tasting was fascinating. People tried one version of a given food followed by the other, going backwards and forwards between them for second and third tries. It was clearly a much harder task than everyone expected. Adults were as confused as 10 year olds. In many cases, people could taste something different in the foods but couldn’t decide which of the products was full fat or lower fat.

At the end of the day, scores varied, with some people correctly guessing as few as two out of 11 of the foods, to one person scoring nine out of 11. As far as the foods were concerned, the “winner,” in terms of people being able to discern a difference and to identify the regular and fat-free versions correctly, was chocolate pudding, with 10 out of 11 people getting it right. Although only eight of the 11 participants tasted the yogurt sample, just one person correctly identified the full-fat one from the fat-free one.

We figured milk would be very easy for people to guess, and although nearly three-quarters of testers correctly distinguished the whole milk from the fat-free milk, the ones that got it wrong said that they would have known simply by looking at the milk samples before drinking them, so deliberately chose to taste them “blind.”

No Accounting for Taste

What does all this prove? In reality, not much. It was a fun science-fair project involving nearly a dozen people—hardly the stuff of health-news headlines (although it did well enough to win a first prize in the 2006 Washington state science fair). Taste is, well, a matter of taste, and some lower-fat products are clearly not as awful as some of us think (though some are!). And what is palatable for one person may not be for someone else.

But if you want to eat low fat without lots of weird and wonderful-sounding additives, try to avoid processed foods as much as possible. Some recipes require substitutions to bring down the fat content, and that’s fine. Usually low-fat varieties work better than fat-free ones, especially in cooking, as some fat-substitute ingredients are not heat stable. Sometimes the quality of a lower-fat or fat-free food depends on the brand. Some food manufacturers try not to replace fat with sugar and salt, but some kind of substitute thickening agent is mostly unavoidable.

If nothing but the real thing will do, then treat yourself from time to time and use the full-fat products sparingly. But be warned: even some full-fat goods have plenty of additives. Pick up a tub of full-fat sour cream, and you may see plenty of gums and other thickeners listed. Finally, remember that lower-fat foods should still be consumed in moderation, and are helpful only if they help lower calories compared with the original version of the food. Simply replacing fat with sugars and salts is not the answer to our health and weight problems.

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