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How much fat/calories are you avoiding with reduced-fat foods?

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Today’s grocery aisles are stocked with products claiming to be “light,” “reduced-fat,” “fat-free” or “low-fat” versions of the original. While some of these provide an easier, healthier way for you to manage your weight and fat intake, you might just be better off buying the regular versions of others depending on the taste — have you ever tried fat-free sour cream? — ingredients or sugar content.

And if you’re wondering why manufacturers are using a million different ways to label foods with reduced fat: According to the American Cancer Society, a product is only considered “low-fat” if it has 3 grams of fat or less for every 100 calories.

 

Sour cream

We studied the Nutrition Facts labels of Daisy’s regular and light sour creams; Organic Valley’s regular and low-fat sour creams; and Breakstone's regular, reduced-fat and fat-free sour creams. The amounts are based on a serving size of 2 tablespoons.

The average regular sour cream contained:
60 calories, 5 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of sugar

The average reduced-fat sour cream contained:
35 calories, 2.2 grams of fat, 1.3 grams of saturated fat, 2.3 grams of sugar

And Breakstone's fat-free sour cream contained:
30 calories, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 2 grams of sugar

The verdict: We’d choose the reduced-fat version, which spares you 25 calories, 2.8 grams of fat and 2.2 grams of saturated fat. The regular version contains less sugar, but as long as you’re not heaping piles of the stuff onto your food, this isn’t devastating.

Why not choose the fat-free version, you ask? Sure, it has fewer calories, less fat and even less sugar than the regular or reduced-fat sour cream, but take a look at how the ingredients change. According to the label, Breakstone's reduced-fat sour cream is made of “cultured pasteurized grade A milk and cream, contains less than 1% of agar, enzymes and vitamin A palmitate.” The fat-free label looks a lot less appetizing: “cultured pasteurized grade A nonfat milk, dried corn syrup, food starch-modified, cream, contains less than 2% of maltodextrin, artificial color, xanthan gum, natural flavor and vitamin A palmitate.” But if you’re not concerned about eating a lot of artificial ingredients, that might be the best option for you. Then again, if you’ve ever tasted the fat-free kind, you already know its tastelessness isn’t even worth the reduction in calories and fat.

 

Cream cheese

We only looked at Kraft’s Philadelphia brand because, honestly, who buys anything else? The amounts are based on a serving size of 2 tablespoons.

The regular Philadelphia soft cream cheese contained:
90 calories, 9 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of sugar

The 1/3 Less Fat Philadelphia soft cream cheese contained:
70 calories, 6 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 2 grams of sugar

And the fat-free Philadelphia soft cream cheese contained:
30 calories, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of sugar

The verdict: Go with the 1/3 Less Fat. It’s not saving you much — 20 calories, 3 grams of fat and 1.5 grams of saturated fat — but if you’re really trying to trim the fat from your diet wherever you can, it’s better than nothing. Once again, taste played a role in our choosing the reduced-fat version over the fat-free version. As long as you’re pairing this with a relatively healthy, well-rounded diet, there’s no need to cut out all of the taste from your foods.

 

Cheese

We’re grateful for the millions of different cheeses out there, but we’re not going to analyze all of them. We chose to look at Extra Sharp Cheddar, which tends to be popular because of its versatility, and we chose the Cracker Barrel and Cabot brands for our research. The amounts are based on a serving size of about 1 ounce (or 28 grams).

The average regular Extra Sharp Cheddar contained:
115 calories, 9.5 grams of fat, 6.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

The average reduced-fat Extra Sharp Cheddar contained:
80 calories, 5.3 grams of fat, 3.3 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

And Cabot’s Sharp Extra Light brand contained:
60 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

The verdict: Stick with either the reduced-fat or the lightest version you can find. The reduced-fat brands spare you a significant amount of calories and fat, and Cabot’s Sharp Extra Light cheese contains even less. The latter doesn’t quite taste as good, but you can’t expect anything with less fat to taste as good as its fattier counterpart. The difference in taste is insignificant enough that it didn’t bother us, but the difference in texture — it’s crumblier and drier — does make it slightly more difficult to shred. As with the rest of these products, choose what’s best for your personal diet.

 

Potato chips

As much as we wish potato chips were nutritious and healthy, they’re just not. But you can help yourself by choosing the ones with the least fat (or also choosing a brand with whole grains). We took a look at two of the most popular chip brands out there — Lay’s and Ruffles — and analyzed their Nutrition Facts for the original plain chips, the “light” chips, the baked variety and an additional version made by Ruffles labeled “Reduced Fat.” The amounts are based on the brands’ serving sizes, which vary by brand.

The average “original” or “classic” plain potato chip brand contained:
160 calories, 10 grams of fat, 1.3 grams of saturated fat, <1 gram of sugar

The average “light” potato chip brand contained:
77.5 calories, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

Ruffles’ Reduced Fat potato chips contained:
140 calories, 7 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

And the average baked potato chip brand contained:
120 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 1.5 grams of sugar

The verdict: Easy answer: Get the baked kind. The fat drops from 10 grams to 2.5 grams, and calories drop from 160 to 120. The baked potato chips also contain zero saturated fat — definitely a plus for something considered junk food. And they taste good!

 

Mayonnaise

You should probably choose between a serving of mayonnaise and a serving of regular potato chips, because believe it or not, they contain the same amount of fat. Terrifying, right? We looked at the Hellmann’s brand, since that tends to be consumers' brand of choice. Unfortunately, the serving sizes were not included on Hellmann’s website with the Nutrition Facts.

Hellmann’s Real (regular) mayonnaise contained:
90 calories, 10 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

Hellmann’s Light mayonnaise contained:
35 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, 0.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of sugar

And Hellmann’s Low Fat mayonnaise contained:
15 calories, 1 gram of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, <1 gram of sugar

The verdict: This depends on where you stand with artificial ingredients and high-fructose corn syrup. While there isn’t enough research to link HFCS with health risks, we understand that a scary study in rats can freak people out. Because mayo has so much fat, we recommend going with the Light or Low Fat options. But if you’d prefer to avoid HFCS, go with the Light, as HFCS is only an ingredient in the Low Fat brand.

 

Salad dressing

Considering salad dressing ranges from healthier kinds, like balsamic, to high-fat kinds, like Ranch, there’s no easy way to average the Nutrition Facts info. Instead, we want to point out that choosing the low-fat version of salad dressing can sometimes have a negative effect on its nutrition value. A June 2012 study found that certain fats in salad dressings could actually boost your body’s absorption of the salad’s nutrients — which means some of those low-fat dressings might prevent your body from absorbing the maximum amount of vitamins and minerals in your salad. Read more about that here.

 

Milk

The U.S. school system now only serves reduced-fat milk to students in an effort to keep students healthy and prevent obesity. We can see why they went this route. Take a look at the varying amounts of calories and fat, based on a serving size of 1 cup.

The average 2% milk contains:
122 calories, 4.8 grams of fat, 3.1 grams of saturated fat, 12.4 grams of sugar

The average 1% milk contains:
102 calories, 2.4 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 12.7 grams of sugar

The average nonfat milk contains:
86 calories, 0.4 grams of fat, 0.3 grams of saturated fat, 12.5 grams of sugar

The verdict: Choosing 1% or nonfat is definitely worth it. 1% milk cuts both the fat and saturated fat in half while barely increasing the sugar, and the amount of fat and saturated fat in nonfat milk is negligible. Plus nonfat only contains 86 calories per cup compared with 122 in 2%.

 

Peanut butter

What should you be using on that PB&J — or, in our case, on celery for snacks? We checked out the Nutrition Facts for two of the most popular brands of peanut butter: Skippy and Jif. (Sorry, Peter Pan fans.) The amounts are based on a serving size of 2 tablespoons.

The average regular creamy peanut butter contained:
190 calories, 16 grams of fat, 2.8 grams of saturated fat, 3 grams of sugar

The average reduced-fat creamy peanut butter contained:
185 calories, 12 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 4 grams of sugar

The verdict: Choose the regular. The reduced-fat peanut butter brands are only saving you an average of 5 calories per serving — that’s practically nothing. And sure, the fat is reduced by 4 grams, but it looks like they cut out the “good” fat, since the worse-for-you saturated fat was only cut by an average of 0.8 grams. Monounsaturated fat (aka the “good” fat) has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, so stick with the regular kind.

 

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