Many ‘low fat’ foods have similar calorie count to standard products, study finds

So-called “low fat” foods can contain a similar number of calories to the standard versions – and in some cases contain even more sugar, according to a study by the UK consumer watchdog, Which?

The survey of more than 1 000 people found that 60% eat ‘low fat’, ‘reduced’ and ‘light’ foods every day or a few times a week – mainly because they think they’re lower in calories and healthier.

However, Which? research shows that this is not always the case.

A standard McVitie’s chocolate digestive contains 85 calories; a light one has 77 – a difference of only eight calories.

The light biscuit contains 30% less fat, but it doesn’t contain 30% fewer calories, as you might expect. It also contains less chocolate and more sugar.

Kellogg’s Special K advertising implies it’s a cereal to eat for those trying to lose weight. But per 30g bowl, it contains more calories than Bran Flakes (207 vs 114).

Is light low in fat?

Foods labelled as reduced or light only have to contain 30% less fat or saturated fat than the standard version. Only 16% of people surveyed knew this.

Switching to a light cheese, which 45% said they eat, can save a lot of fat and saturated fat. But these products are still high in fat.

Cathedral City mature cheddar contains 34.9g fat and 21.7g saturated fat. The ‘Lighter’ version has 21.8g fat and 14.9g saturated fat, which still gets a red rating in the traffic-light labelling scheme.

A Tesco low-fat yogurt has more calories per pot – 130 – compared with the Activia standard yoghurt, containing 123 calories. The Tesco yogurt also contained more sugar – 20.2g (equivalent to more than four teaspoons) per pot rather than 16.9g in the Activia version.

Labelling regulations define low fat as containing less than 3% fat, the terms reduced fat, light and lite mean 30% less fat than the standard or original product, and more than 20g of fat per 100g makes a product high in fat. More than 5g saturated fat per 100g means it is high in saturated fat.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “Consumers are choosing ‘low-fat’ and ‘light’ options believing them to be a healthier choice, but our research has found that in many cases they’re just not living up to their healthy image. Our advice to consumers is to read the nutritional labels carefully.”

Which? has been campaigning for the supermarkets to add clearer labelling to packaging so consumers can make a more informed choice about what they eat. It is calling on Morrisons and Iceland, the two remaining supermarkets yet to adopt the traffic light labelling system, to do so as soon as possible.

In August Tesco backed down and announced it would develop a “hybrid” labelling system incorporating both traffic lights and its long-favoured GDA system showing “guideline daily amounts” without colours.