Monday, December 11, 2006

Low-fat Foods May Make you Fat!

At least that's what the headlines are going to read once they get hold of Brian Wansink's latest paper.

Published in this month's Journal of Marketing Research, his paper (full-text of his article freely provided by Dr. Wansink on his website in Word format in the "Free Stuff" section) explores the influence that a label like, "Low-fat" has on consumption.

First some minor background and the take home point of this blog entry:

Now onto the studies.

In study #1, University open house attendees were taken to one of two bowls. One contained regular M&Ms labeled, "New Colors of Regular M&Ms" and the other the same M&Ms this time artificially labeled, "New Low-Fat M&Ms".

Low-fat labeling led participants in the study to eat 28.4% more M&Ms, and interestingly participants who were already classifiable as being overweight (via body-mass index means), took 16.7% more M&Ms than healthy weight participants.

Dr. Wansink and authors postulated that perhaps this was due to the fact that the "Low-fat" label seemed to affect the over-underestimation of calories by overweight participants compared with healthy weight participants.

Only problem with this experiment is the fact that there is no such thing as a "Low-Fat" M&M therefore one might assume that with a truly low-fat product, the increased consumption due to the labeling might not be reflected in consuming more calories.

The thing is, you'd likely be wrong.

Dr. Wansink's no dummy and of course, he surveyed the fat and calorie content of ALL brands of chocolate candies, bars, cookies, milk drinks and muffins with at least a 5% market share. He found that 17 products had both a "Regular" and a "Low-Fat" version. The serving sizes were comparable for all products.

On average the "Low-Fat" products contained 59% less fat than their "Regular" counterparts, but ONLY 15% fewer calories!

Taking his original study with M&Ms, if there were a low-fat M&M with 59% less fat and 15% fewer calories than regular M&Ms, participants would still have consumed 9% more calories from the low-fat product.

Dr. Wansink goes further and quotes the work of Marion Nestle who found that ingredients used to replace fat often tend to make people hungrier and therefore he feels that in fact eating "Low-Fat" labeled products may well causes us to consume even more than an additional 9% of calories!

To ensure that this wasn't due simply to the fact that "Low-Fat M&Ms" were something perceived as a too good to be true item that then led to over consumption, Dr. Wansink performed a similar experiment using granola. He found very similar results and then when comparing his statistics with real world products found that the "Low-Fat" label would lead a person to consume 33% more calories than the "Regular" version.

The paper concludes:
  1. Labeling snacks as “low fat” increases food intake
  2. For normal weight people, “low fat” labeling increases consumption most with foods that are believed to be relatively healthy.
  3. For overweight people, “low fat” labeling increases their consumption of all foods.
Bottom line - Don't get conned by Big Food.

Don't take anything at face value. Ignore claims like "Low-fat", "Low-carb" and definitely be very leery of both industry sponsored Healthy Options stamps like the as “Sensible Snacking” (Nabisco/Kraft), “Smart Spot” (Pepsico), or “Healthy Living” (Unilever) and even non-industry sponsored stamps like the Health Check from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Just because there's a claim or stamp on a product does not make it healthy, nor does it mean it's low calorie.

Stay tuned tomorrow for down and dirty label reading. All you need to know, in 4 easy steps!