Is low(er) fat always the better choice?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 11 Apr, 2018

Walk down any supermarket aisle and you'll see shelves bursting with low and reduced fat alternatives to some of our favourite foods. But whilst it's tempting to cram our shopping baskets with such apparently 'guilt-free' offerings, is 'low fat' always the better option? Nutracheck nutritionist, Emma Brown, takes a closer look.

"We all need some fat in our diet, not least because it makes our food more tasty. Nutritionally, fats do much more than simply supply calories. Certain fats, like those in nuts, seeds and oily fish, provide essential fatty acids which are important for maintaining healthy blood vessels, making hormones and for the correct functioning of our nervous system. The fat in our diet also helps us absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K.

"Always choosing low fat foods, or following a very low-fat diet, makes you more likely to be low in these vitamins, which can impact on your immunity and limit the body's ability to heal itself. It's better to focus your diet on the healthier fats by including more fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, including avocado and olive.

"Low fat foods can also be higher in sugar as the fat is replaced with sugar for taste, so you may not be saving as many calories as you think by switching to a low fat alternative. And very often there is a noticeable difference in taste.

"As with all food, it's about balance, and sometimes it's fine to choose the full fat option. When we asked our members for their views on higher calorie foods – including houmous, salad dressings and yoghurt – only 27% said they would go for a low calorie alternative.

"The majority – 54% – said they preferred eating the 'real thing' but less of it, to a 'diet' alternative of the same food. So it seems that taste wins out for most people.

"And in our own blind taste test comparing regular houmous with the reduced fat version, the full fat Marks & Spencer Houmous with Extra Virgin Olive Oil won hands down"

Full fat v low fat?

There's 29.4g fat (of which 3.3g are saturates) in the regular houmous, compared to 19g of fat (of which 2.7g are saturates) in its reduced fat opposite number; this makes the reduced fat product 35.3% lower in overall fat.

The ingredients in the two products are the same – but the proportions are different – and there's more water in the reduced fat version. As for calories, the regular houmous works out at 331kcals per 100g; the reduced fat version is 32% lower at 255kcals per 100g.

The result? Full fat wins – at least in our office. Compliments included: 'nicer texture', 'more body', 'intense in flavour', 'easier to distinguish the chickpeas' and 'better aftertaste'.

Conclusion: Taste wins out for this dip – we felt a scoop of original full fat houmous was well worth the calories and fat.

Emma added: "As long as you appreciate the calorie and fat content of what you're eating, it's perfectly okay to enjoy the taste of full fat. A 50-70g scoop as an average portion is fine – just resist the temptation to finish the whole pot!"

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.