When Fat-Free is Not Zero Fat

Rows and rows of fat-free products are displayed on grocery shelves. This selling point has lured millions of consumers into a fat-free lifestyle, but is there any truth about foods being "fat-free"?

When is it called fat-free?

For a product to be fat-free, it should contain less than half a gram of fat per serving. The problem, however, is when more than one serving is consumed. In that case, you do not have a "fat-free" diet anymore as those fractions of a gram would count towards your daily fat intake. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit their daily fat intake to less than 80 grams depending on your height-and-weight proportion.

The presence of trans fat

Zero grams is something different from zero trans fat. The use of trans fat has been discouraged by federal laws in the United States, as it contributes to heart diseases by raising levels of LDL or bad cholesterol while lowering HDL or good cholesterol.

Shoppers should read the labels and check for ingredients containing trans fat, such as partially hydrogenated oil. You should also ask restaurants or fast-food chains if they are using alternative fats instead of partially hydrogenated oil, which is vegetable oil with added hydrogen, in cooking their food. AHA recommends that people limit trans fat to less than three grams a day.

Reading labels

Food labels are your best ally when it comes to monitoring your fat intake. A product may have the recommended half a gram of fat per serving, but if the serving is actually a small percentage of the whole package (such as a piece of cookie) then you are stacking more amounts of fats once you eat more than one serving.

Meanwhile, any trans fat in products labeled as "zero trans fat" is likely to be far less than the half-gram threshold. A small amount of partially hydrogenated oil, for instance, can be used to help seasoning stick. You should also focus on the presence of saturated fat when reading food labels, as this also raises the risk of heart disease.

The problem, however, is that these valuable information is not available in restaurants, bakeries, cafeterias, and schools. What you can do is to ask the waiter if they have nutritional information on the dish that you would eat. However, in most cases they don’t and you need to rely on your gut feeling when setting aside the salad dressing or simply eating less.

You should also be aware that while some fat-free products lack in fat, they may actually have high amount of calories and sugars.