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How to Spot Misleading Fat-Free Labels

Fat-free foods aren’t always free from fat


Updated February 15, 2014

How to Spot Misleading Fat-Free Labels

Find the hidden fat in your food

Peter Nicholson/Getty Images
You can do your best to eat a healthy diet and still end up eating a significant amount of fat, including dangerous trans fat. How is that possible? There are a few loopholes that allow food manufacturers to call a food “fat-free” even though it contains fat.

But a savvy consumer can learn spot the misleading fat-free labels. Find out how to find the hidden fat in your food and then learn to minimize the damage if you eat fat-free foods.

Fat-Free Foods That Really Contain Fat

If you walk through any grocery store you’ll see shelves stocked with foods that claim to be free from fat. If you are watching your weight, you might even check the Nutrition Facts Label on your food to see how many grams of fat it contains. The label might say that it contains 0 grams fat, or 0 grams trans fat. Does that mean it is fat-free? No!

Labeling guidelines established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allow any food with less than .5 grams of fat to be labeled fat-free. That might not seem unreasonable. After all, how can a one half gram of fat really hurt you? But it can, especially if it is trans fat.

How to Find Hidden Fat

If you really want to know if your fat-free food contains fat, look beyond the Nutrition Facts Label to the list of ingredients. This is where you’ll find the real skinny on fat. Look for any of the following words:
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Shortening
  • Milk solids
  • Cream
  • Palm oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • …any other kind of oil

Many of the oils on this list are saturated fats. Those are the fats that raise blood cholesterol and when consumed in significant amounts can increase your risk of heart disease. But the most dangerous oils are those listed as “partially hydrogenated.”

Partially hydrogenated oils are liquid fats that have been modified to remain solid at room temperature. The process causes them to contain trans-fatty acids, or trans fat. Trans fats raise cholesterol higher than saturated fat and can have a significant impact on your health. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated” on the label, then the food contains trans fat even if it says “trans fat-free” on the label.

Why A Half Gram of Fat Matters

It doesn’t seem like a half gram of fat can really do that much damage. That might be true if you only eat the recommended serving size of your fat-free food. But we often consume much more than what we are supposed to. And when a food is labeled fat-free, or when we have a perception that a food is healthy, we have a tendency to eat even more.

The next time you find a hidden fat in your food, especially if it is a trans fat, take a look at the serving size. Then measure the portion that you eat. You may find that you are consuming many more grams of fat than you realize.

Your best line of defense against hidden fats in your food is to read labels and measure your portions. In some cases you might find that eating a full fat version of certain foods is more satisfying than the fat free food. If that allows you to eat less, your fat intake might be lower by eating the higher fat food.

Do the math. It might surprise you!


Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Unrealistic Serving Sizes Understate Calories, Sodium, Saturated Fat, Says CSPI." August 2, 2011.

Food. Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed: June 25, 2012. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/FoodLabelingGuide/ucm064911.htm

Nutrition Labeling. Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed: June 25, 2012. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/FoodLabelingGuide/ucm064904.htm#general

Varonique Provencher, Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman. " Perceived healthiness of food. If it's healthy, you can eat more!." Appetite April 2009.

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