Do Low Fat Foods Really Taste Different?

A Matter of Taste

Regular and Lower Fat Cookies
Regular and Lower Fat Cookies. Fiona Haynes

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). 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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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.