Do fat-free foods offer consumers a palatable alternative to a serious nutritional hazard, or are they just another in a long line of simplistic health fads?
The promise of reducing saturated fat -- a dietary villain that increases the risk of heart disease and cancer -- is enticing. Especially if a product's taste, texture and shelf life are not measurably diminished.
Some industry observers hail the proliferation of fat-free foods as the most important product development since the debut of artificial sweeteners two decades ago. Others, however, say that while the expanding line of fat-free foods may offer an alternative to high-fat sweets, manufacturers promise more than the products are likely to deliver.
Interest in fat-free products has soared since health officials started advising Americans to reduce their daily fat intake to only percent of total calories, down from the current 40 percent or more. But high-fat foods -- ice cream, cheese, deli foods, meat -- are among consumer favorites and are hard to give up.
To the rescue come many of these same foods, but without fat's heavy baggage.
"Fat-free is the buzzword of the '90s . . . I haven't seen a phenomenon like this in a long while," says Martin Friedman, editor of Gorman's New Product News, an authoritative trade journal that tracks the introduction of household goods. "In the next five years, the sales of fat-free foods will surpass anything done by fiber, oat bran, microwaveable or low-cholesterol items."
Mr. Friedman estimates sales of fat-free foods will be $350 million in 1991, an impressive achievement considering the category was introduced barely a year ago. He says the products will eventually generate a billion dollars annually.
Surprisingly, the fat reductions are made possible by reformulating traditional ingredients, not with a mysterious artificial substitute. For instance, egg whites replace whole eggs, and non-fat dry milk is used in place of whole milk. (There is one approved fat substitute -- the NutraSweet Co.'s Simplesse -- but it is currently being used in a single frozen dessert line: Simple Pleasures.)
The leader in the field is Kraft General Foods, which is marketing fat-free versions of cheese slices, yogurts, salad dressings, frozen desserts and bakery products.
"Consumer acceptance of our products has been outstanding," says Sandy Morreale, a Kraft General Foods nutritionist. "[Consumers] like them and they use them."
Kraft representatives say the fat reductions are achieved through a "new way of blending the same ingredients that have been used for years" but with a higher degree of technology.
In a subtle criticism of NutraSweet and other companies developing fat substitutes, Kraft claims consumers are more "comfortable" with its approach.
"Nothing new or different is introduced into the food supply," Ms. Morreale says. "We are making these products from things consumers have been eating all along."
Recently the Glenview, Ill.-based company announced what it called a "revolutionary" development: fat-free versions of its mayonnaise and Miracle Whip spread.
Product analyst Friedman praises Kraft's latest fat-free entry.
"Mayonnaise is mostly oil and eggs," he says. "And what is this? A mayonnaise with no oil and no eggs? Amazing."
Skeptics are not so generous.
One Washington-based consumer advocacy group says several manufacturers of fat-free foods are making exaggerated product claims. "Kraft is stretching the truth and confusing consumers," says Bruce Silverglade, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In order for a product to be called "fat-free," the federal government requires there be less than 1/2 gram of fat per serving. Mr. Silverglade says some products meet this standard by establishing unrealistically small serving sizes for their products.
"Some of these products are low in fat but not fat-free," he says.
As an example, Mr. Silverglade points to the fat-free salad dressings.
"The federal government says the standard serving size for salad dressing is 2 tablespoons per person," he says. "Yet these companies are saying on the labels that the typical serving is 1 tablespoon [in order to meet the fat-free standard of 1/2 gram per serving]."
While not identifying any particular company, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says inaccurate serving sizes have come to the agency's attention.
"There's no question that FDA has been concerned about the manipulation of serving sizes for various products," says the FDA's Chris Lecos in Washington. "It is still a matter of considerable debate."
In fact, the FDA recently held a public hearing in Washington on the issue. The forum was part of several being conducted by the agency relating to new food labeling regulations that will deal with serving sizes, health claims and other issues by Nov. 8.
Mr. Silverglade and other skeptics point to the history of artificial sweeteners as a barometer for what may happen with fat-free products. In the 20 years that sugar substitutes have been on FTC the market, the per capita consumption of sugar in this country has actually increased.
"Our experience with low-calorie sweeteners shows that [despite their widespread availability] people do not reduce their sugar intake," says Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., chair of the University of California, Davis, nutrition department. "People may use fat-free mayonnaise on a sandwich and then think they don't have to worry about adding that extra piece of baloney. It would be better if they just used less mayonnaise."
Ms. Schneeman, who served on the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, says the emergence of fat-free products is "helpful" in that it will present more choices to people concerned about fat intake.
"You want a range of products available in order to choose diets low in fat . . . including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy foods," she says. "People need to recognize what an ideal or reasonable diet looks like."