Trends in Marketing and Usage of Fat-Modified Foods: Implications for Dietary Status and Nutrition Promotion
Nancy E. Schwenk
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
The tremendous increase in the number of fat-modified foods is one of the most notable changes in the retail food market that has occurred in the past few years. These products have the potential to change Americans’ eating habits and could have significant effects on dietary status. The purposes of this article are to inform nutrition and consumer educators of this trend and the factors that have contributed to it; to examine concerns that have been raised in relation to this trend; and to discuss the potential implications for nutrition promotion.
In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of fat-modified foods in the marketplace. This increase has been spurred by consumer interest and further fueled by passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA). The rapid influx of fat-modified food products into the marketplace has raised concerns regarding their use, including potential physiological effects, price, and potential impact on overall diet quality.
This paper will define fat-modified foods, discuss the factors that have led to their increased presence in the marketplace, and review the evidence on the concerns raised. It will identify future research issues and discuss the challenges for nutrition education and promotion in helping consumers understand the role of fat-modified foods in their diets.
Definition of Fat-Modified Foods
Some fat-modified foods can be created merely by removing fat from a conventional food product–skim milk is a good example of this type of modification. For many foods, however, fat provides important sensory and functional qualities, and simply removing it would not result in an acceptable product. In those foods, fat substitutes are used to mimic the qualities provided by fat, such as the rich, creamy “mouth feel” of ice cream or the moist texture of a cake (table 1). In this paper, the term “fat-modified foods” will be used to refer to all food products in which the fat content has been reduced compared with a standard product, either by simply removing fat or by replacing fat wholly or partially with some type of fat substitute.
Table 1. Functions of fat reduction ingredients
* Bulking agent
* Provide mouth feel
Source: International Food Information Council Foundation, 1995, Uses and Nutritional Impact of Fat Reduction Ingredients, November issue.
In some products, fat can be replaced or reduced using relatively simple techniques. For example, water can be added to some foods, like margarine, to dilute their fat concentration. Sometimes fat reduction can be accomplished by substituting familiar ingredients for fat in a product. Widely used examples would be fruit purees like prune paste or applesauce that are used in both homemade and commercially baked goods as substitutes for fat in a recipe.
In addition to these modifications, food technologists have developed or modified other compounds for use as fat substitutes. These fat substitutes can be based on protein, carbohydrate, or a reduced-calorie or noncaloric version of fats (17). Table 2 provides examples of some of the major fat substitutes that fall into these categories.
Table 2. Types of fat substitutes(1)
Carbohydrate-based Dextrins and modified starches
Gums and pectin
Oatrim and Z-trim
Reduced and noncaloric fat-based Caprenin
Mono- and diglycerides
(1) Adapted from International Food Information Council, 1995, Uses and Nutritional Impact of Fat Reduction Ingredients, November issue.
Protein-Based Fat Substitutes
Protein-based fat substitutes, such as Simplesse (made by the NutraSweet Company) and similar products, are created by a process called microparticulation. Proteins are heated and blended at high speed, producing tiny, spherical particles that give foods a creamy “mouth feel” similar to that of fats (3). They can be used in such products as reduced-fat ice cream and dairy desserts, mayonnaise, salad dressings, and cheese but cannot be used to make reduced-fat fried foods such as potato chips and french fries (3). Protein provides 4 calories per gram and fat provides 9 calories per gram; these substitutes provide 1-4 calories per gram, depending on the amount of hydration of the product (20). In addition, they may be usable in smaller amounts than the fats they replace; for example, 1 gram of Simplesse can be used to replace 3 grams of fat in ice cream (17).
Carbohydrate-Based Fat Substitutes
There are a number of carbohydrate-based fat substitutes, and they are used in a wide range of food products such as salad dressings, baked products, cheeses, processed meats, sour cream, yogurt, and puddings (20). Like protein-based fat substitutes, they cannot be used to fry foods (3).
Among the most common carbohydrate-based fat substitutes are dextrins and modified starches. These compounds absorb water, forming gels that have a texture and mouth feel similar to fat. Gums such as guar gum are used as fat replacers, particularly in foods such as salad dressings where they also act as stabilizers. Pectin is another gel-forming carbohydrate sometimes used as a fat substitute.
Indigestible fiber cellulose can be ground into microparticles that can form gels that are used as fat substitutes (3). Two new fiber-based fat substitutes are Oatrim and Z-trim, which were developed by scientists at USDA. Oatrim is produced from oat fiber (3), whereas Z-trim is made from a mixture of plant fibers, including oat, corn, rice, wheat, and soybean fiber (34).
Polydextrose, a glucose polymer used to replace sugar or fat in foods, helps keep foods such as lowfat cakes and desserts moist. It also acts as a bulking agent replacing volume lost by the removal of fat and/or sugar (3).
Like proteins, carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram. Carbohydrate-based fat substitutes can supply 0 to 4 calories per gram, depending on the specific ingredient and how it is used (20). Dry forms of dextrins can supply 4 calories per gram; hydrated forms, 1-2 calories per gram; and gums and fibrous carbohydrates such as cellulose contribute virtually no calories (20).
Reduced and Noncaloric Fat-Based Substitutes
Reduced and noncaloric fat-based substitutes can be used in chocolate, dairy products, and other foods. Some reduced-calorie and noncaloric fat-based substitutes can be used to fry foods (17). The reduced-calorie fat-based substitutes Caprenin (Procter and Gamble Company) and Salatrim (Nabisco, Inc.) are only partially digested and absorbed and, therefore, contribute fewer calories per gram than conventional fats–5 calories per gram compared with 9 calories per gram (17). Other fat-based substitutes have been created using mono- and diglycerides. Although mono- and diglycerides provide the same amount of calories as other fats, they can be used in smaller amounts, thus reducing total fat and calories (17).
Olestra, a fat substitute recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in snack products, is not digested and absorbed at all and is, therefore, noncaloric. Despite its recent approval as a fat substitute, its use remains controversial (see box, pp. 21 and 22). Several potential noncaloric fat-based substitutes are currently under development. Among them are dialkyl dihexadecylmalonate (DDM), esterified propoxylated glycerol (EPG), and trialkoxytricarballate (TATCA) (17).
Reasons for the Increase in Fat-Modified Foods
Diseases resulting from poor diet or inadequate physical activity cause an estimated 300,000 deaths a year (25). High fat intakes, in particular, are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and other diseases (17). Researchers studying the effects of reduced dietary intake ‘of saturated fat on the incidence and economic costs of coronary heart disease estimated that a 3-percent drop in saturated fat intake could prevent about 100,000 new cases of coronary heart disease by the year 2005 and save nearly $13 billion in medical costs and lost earnings (in 1993 dollars) (28).
The 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services as the official statement of Federal dietary guidance policy, recommend, for healthy persons age 2 and over, limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories consumed and total fat intake to 30 percent or less. In addition, numerous health organizations such as the American Heart Association (22) and the American Cancer Society (1) recommend a lowfat diet–no more than 30 percent of total calories from fat.
Since fat supplies energy and essential fatty acids and aids absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, some fat is needed in the diet (36). However, most Americans consume more dietary fat than what is considered to be a healthy amount. In 1995, Americans averaged 33 percent of their total caloric intake from fat (35). Although this is a decline from the 1977-78 figure of approximately 41 percent of calories from fat (40), it is still above recommendations.
The belief that food and nutrition have a strong impact on personal health is growing among consumers. The importance of nutrition as a determinant in food-buying decisions is at an all-time high (78 percent). In 1996, 97 percent of food shoppers claimed to have changed their eating habits to reflect a healthier diet, up from 92 percent the previous year (30). The leading changes in dietary behavior reported in 1996 were an increase in fruits and vegetables and a decrease in fats and oils (table 3).
Table 3. Leading changes in dietary behavior, 1992-96(1)
Dietary change 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
More fruits/vegetables 60 62 63 63 77
Less fats/oils 28 26 32 34 42
Less meat/red meat 31 30 31 34 32
Less sugar 12 15 13 15 20
Less snack foods/junk foods 12 12 11 12 18
Less salt/sodium 8 8 7 6 13
Eating more chicken/turkey/ 14 14 13 16 12
Less fried foods 7 6 6 6 9
Eating more fish 10 10 8 8 8
Less dairy/butter/cheese/ 7 4 6 6 7
More fiber 8 8 7 5 7
More starch/rice/potato/pasta 5 5 7 8 6
Less cholesterol 8 6 3 3 6
More whole grain 2 3 1 6 4
More fresh foods 3 3 5 3 3
(1) Shoppers were asked, “What, if anything, are you eating more of to ensure that your diet is healthy? What, if anything, are you eating less of to ensure that your diet is healthy?” (Multiple responses accepted.)
Source: Food Marketing Institute, 1996, Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket, 1996.
The most common motivation for making these changes was weight control, rather than concern about disease (15).
Among food shoppers with nutritional concerns (an overwhelming 94 percent in 1996), fat is likely to be the main concern (14). When asked their specific concerns about the nutritional content of food, these shoppers indicated that their top concerns were: Fat (60 percent), salt/sodium (28 percent), cholesterol (26 percent), sugar (12 percent), calories (12 percent), and vitamin/mineral content (12 percent) (multiple answers were accepted) (table 4, p. 22). Concern about fat peaked in 1995 at 65 percent (14).
Table 4. Leading concerns about nutritional content of food, 1992-96(1)
Concern 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
Fat content, low fat 50 54 59 65 60
Salt/sodium content, less salt 21 26 18 20 28
Cholesterol levels 30 23 21 18 26
Sugar content/less sugar 13 18 14 15 12
Calories/low calorie 9 15 7 13 12
Vitamin/mineral content 8 10 6 8 12
Preservatives 11 8 10 11 8
Chemical additives 9 6 8 10 7
Food/nutritional value 5 10 4 8 6
Freshness/purity/no spoilage 5 3 5 7 5
Desire to be healthy/eat what’s
good for us 2 5 4 3 5
Ingredients/contents 5 5 2 6 4
As natural as possible/not overly
processed 2 2 4 5 3
Chemicals 4 2 3 4 3
Getting a balanced diet 4 4 2 2 3
(1) Shoppers who were very or somewhat concerned about the nutritional content of their food were asked, “What is it about the nutritional content of what you eat that concerns you most?” (Multiple answers accepted.)
Source: Food Marketing Institute, 1996, Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket, 1996.
It can be difficult for a person to adopt a lowfat diet. It may require changing basic food selection and preparation patterns. Often, many culturally based or favorite foods must be limited (3). In addition, many consumers (nearly half of food shoppers) are confused and unsure about how to modify fat intake. Substituting a fat-modified food for its regular counterpart may seem a simpler way to reduce fat than eating different types of foods.
Growth of Fat-Modified Foods
The Public Health Service’s 1990 publication Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives made a request of the food industry–a doubling of available lower fat foods by the year 2000 (38). With consumer demand spurring industry on, this objective was accomplished quickly, as more than 1,000 fat-modified foods were introduced, on average, each year since 1990 (20). By comparison, only 38 fat-modified products were introduced in 1981 (26). At that time, there was less consumer demand for such products, and advanced technologies to produce reduced-fat foods were not available.
Types of Foods
Processed foods provide the greatest opportunity for fat modification because they can be reformulated to control their fat content. Even though the fat content of foods such as milk, meat, and eggs occurs naturally, it can be decreased through breeding or feeding practices (26). For example, according to the National Cattlemen’s Association and the Beef Industry Council, “the beef industry has succeeded in reducing the amount of fat in its products. Beef today has 27 percent less trimmable fat” than a decade ago (27). Leaner meats are the result of improved breeding and meat-trimming practices (16).
Frazao and Allshouse (16) used supermarket scanner data for 1989-93 to study the size and growth of the nutritionally improved foods market compared with their traditional counterparts. The 37 food categories used in their study accounted for 71 percent of volume sales captured by the scanner data in 1993. These nutritionally improved foods represented a steadily increasing proportion of retail food sales. Food categories with nutritionally improved versions that had the largest percent growth in sales volume between 1989 and 1993 were dairy puddings, spaghetti sauce, cookies, whipping creams, popcorn, cream cheese, sour cream, and salad/ cooking oils. The largest contributors to volume sales in 1993 were beverages–carbonated beverages, milk, fruit juices/drinks/ades, and beer (16).
Fat-modified products make up a very large share of total products available among several product categories, including yogurt, refrigerated milk, and cottage cheese. Nonfat yogurt is so popular that whole milk yogurt accounts for only a small percentage of the yogurt market (9).
Fat-modified snack foods were eaten by 49 percent of consumers in 1996 compared with 39 percent in 1993 (6). According to the Snack Food Association, fat-modified snack foods are the “fastest-growing products in the supermarkets.” Between 1994 and 1995, fat-modified pretzels gained 339 percent in sales, whereas fat-modified varieties of tortilla chips gained 67 percent; potato chips, 48 percent; and cookies, 38 percent. Lowfat dips and salsas also gained in sales in 1995 (11).
The Influence of Federal Legislation
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), which was signed in November of 1990 and went into effect in August of 1994, amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (33). Under the NLEA, virtually all processed foods for sale must carry nutrition labeling that provides the amount of total fat and saturated fat per serving (as well as other nutrients). Also, the number of calories per serving derived from fat and any other source must be included (33). As a result, consumers are able to compare the fat content of different types of foods and different brands of the same food. In addition, the NLEA restricts the types of claims that manufacturers can make on food products. The number of food products bearing fat-related health claims increased until 1993, when the number decreased dramatically. Although consumer demand for fat-modified products remained strong, the decrease in fat-related health claims can be attributed to the NLEA. By 1993, food manufacturers were labeling their products in anticipation of the August 1994 implementation date (31).
FDA researchers found that between the spring of 1994 and the fall of 1995 (before and after NLEA implementation) there was a significant increase in the percentage of adults who often used food labels to obtain information on a food’s nutrient content or for health claims applied to that food (7). It appears that consumers are increasingly using food labels to make food choices based on fat content and other nutrients. In addition, consumers are more confident about the accuracy of label information (31).
According to the Calorie Control Council, 88 percent of American adults (90 percent of women and 87 percent of men) consumed fat-modified foods and beverages in 1996 (6). Only 20 percent of adults never or hardly ever purchased lowfat food products (fig. 1) (7).
As of 1996, 81 percent of shoppers had sought out and bought products labeled “low-fat” (14). Fat is the main reason why shoppers selected the foods they did. Information about fat content on the nutrition label prompted 72 percent of shoppers to start buying a new food, compared with those who were motivated by information about sodium (13 percent), calories (9 percent), cholesterol (6 percent), and preservatives and additives (4 percent) (15).
In 1996, consumers who used any fat-modified products on a regular basis were likely to use at least five: Milk, salad dressing/sauce/mayonnaise, cheese/ dairy products, margarine, and chips/ snack foods (6). Three-quarters of these consumers used these products at least several times a week, and over half used them daily.
Concerns Regarding Consumption of Fat-Modified Foods
Increased consumption of fat-modified foods may seem to be a positive trend in American eating habits, since it could help achieve the Dietary Guidelines recommendation to reduce fat and saturated fat intake. Nevertheless, numerous concerns have been raised about these products–including those of safety, price, and diet quality.
The safety of food additives must always be considered, but fat substitutes merit particular study because, unlike most additives, they could potentially be consumed in very large quantities (37). The FDA is responsible for the safety of food additives. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a substance is exempt from the definition of food additive and from premarket approval requirements if it is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by qualified experts. Generally, substances that are identical or similar to traditional food ingredients are regulated under the GRAS exemption, whereas those that are truly novel are regulated as food additives.
Many of the products used as fat replacers, such as starches, gums, and cellulose, are also in common use as emulsifiers, gelling agents, stabilizers, and bulking agents and under those uses have long been approved for use by FDA. Thus, it is assumed that their use poses no health concerns. FDA, however, may re-examine approved substances should any concerns surface.
The microparticulated protein product Simplesse was the first ingredient announced by FDA specifically for use as a fat substitute. It is considered to be a GRAS product. Currently, there are two non-GRAS ingredients that have been approved as food additives for use as fat substitutes: Polydextrose and olestra. Although polydextrose was approved, it does have laxative effects when consumed in large amounts, and foods containing large amounts of polydextrose must carry a notification label. Olestra’s possible side effects have raised considerable controversy (see box, pp. 20 and 21), but its use as a food additive was approved by FDA on the recommendation of the FDA Food Advisory Committee. Currently, its use is limited to one food category–savory snacks–and FDA plans to review the impact of olestra consumption no later than June 1998 (30 months after approval) (10).
Petitions have been filed with FDA regarding two other new fat substitutes, Caprenin and Salatrim (2,3). These petitions affirm to FDA that Caprenin and Salatrim are GRAS. As a part of the process of filing a GRAS Affirmation Petition, FDA requires that any safety issues concerning the ingredient be addressed. The agency does not file petitions that do not address all criteria for GRAS status. Food manufacturers often begin using these products once the GRAS Affirmation Petition is filed with the FDA, because they believe it is unlikely that an ingredient’s GRAS status will be challenged once the petition is filed. Salatrim, for example, is currently being marketed under the brand name Benefat[TM] (2).
Other Physiological Effects
Some fat substitutes may have positive health properties. For example, Oatrim contains soluble fiber, which has been found to lower cholesterol (3). Z-trim also has been cited as a potentially valuable fiber source (34). Whether either of these substitutes will be consumed in sufficient quantities to have a significant impact on Americans’ fiber intakes remains to be seen.
Fat-modified food products may offer increased options for those following a lowfat diet, but only if the consumer can afford them. Results of a recent study by Frazao and Allshouse indicate that “nutritionally improved” food items (a category that included fat-modified, sodium-modified, and other foods that were modified nutritionally) generally cost more per pound in 1993 than their regular versions (for 30 of 37 food categories studied) (16).
This price differential may have affected consumer perception of the cost of healthful diets. A 1996 survey of shoppers found that 58 percent agreed with the statement “it costs more to eat healthful foods,” up from 43 percent in 1992 (15). It is, of course, possible to eat a healthful diet by making appropriate choices from regular food items. But if consumers perceive that it is necessary to purchase fat-modified food products in order to follow a lowfat diet, the higher prices of many of these items may be a barrier to dietary change.
Impact on Diet Quality
Fat-modified foods’ potential role in decreasing fat intake has generated considerable interest. Since many, though not all, of these foods are also reduced in calories, it has also been suggested that their use might help Americans achieve or maintain a healthy weight. In addition, some research suggests that a lower fat diet may be beneficial for weight loss because fat compared with carbohydrate is more efficiently converted to adipose tissue (17).
Detractors have argued that there is no proof that use of these products leads to an overall diet that is lower in fat and/or calories. They further contend that if consumers rely on fat-modified foods rather than changing basic eating patterns, this may lead to consumption of diets that are less healthful in terms of intake of vitamins, minerals, and other dietary essentials.
Effects of Fat-Modified Food Use on Overall Fat and Caloric Intake
Researchers have attempted to model the potential impact of regular use of fat-modified food products on diet quality. Lyle et al. (24) estimated that fat intake could be reduced to 30 percent of calories and average caloric intake decreased by approximately 800 calories per week if fat-free products in several food categories (cheeses, sour cream, frozen desserts, commercial sweet baked goods) were substituted for their regular versions.
In real life, however, consumers may act differently than the model suggests. Consumers may eat reduced-fat foods in larger amounts or otherwise compensate for the reduced-fat (and sometimes calorie) content of some foods by eating more of other foods. To confirm whether consumption of reduced-fat foods is associated with an overall diet reduced in either fat or calories, studies of actual eating behavior are needed.
Studies in which subjects were surreptitiously fed reduced-fat, reduced-calorie versions of familiar foods have generally shown that healthy, normal-weight subjects compensated for the reduced calories in the lowfat foods by eating more of other foods. They did not seek out high fat foods to compensate for the reduction in fat calories. Instead, they ate more of their usual mix of foods, resulting in a net decrease in fat intake but not in caloric intake (17). One study, conducted with overweight individuals, showed incomplete caloric compensation when subjects were surreptitiously fed reduced-fat, reduced-calorie foods, resulting in a net reduction in both fat and calorie consumption (19).
A special concern is the potential impact of consumption of fat-modified food products on children’s energy intake. If a child’s caloric intake were reduced by excess consumption of reduced-fat products, this might compromise growth. Even if these products are not marketed towards children, it could reasonably be expected that if they are widely consumed there will be at least some children who will eat them regularly. Few studies of the impact of consumption of fat-modified food products on children’s diets have been done. One study, conducted by Birch et al. (5), indicates that preschool-age children, like normal-weight adults, compensate for the reduction in calories but not for the reduction in fat when fed reduced-fat, reduced-calorie foods. More studies with children of differing ages would be helpful in fully assessing any potential impacts of these products on childhood diets (4).
Potential Impacts of Consumers’ Beliefs About Fat-Modified Foods on Diet
The experimental studies described above were conducted with individuals who did not know they were consuming foods that were reduced in fat and calories. Therefore, their changes in eating behavior reflect the influence of physiological factors only. In normal circumstances, individuals know they are consuming fat-modified food products, and this awareness may influence their behavior. For example, individuals may react by eating more of the fat-modified food product or by eating more of other foods. Such a reaction could negate the reduction in fat or calories associated with consumption of reduced-fat foods or even lead to a diet higher in fat or calories if the individual miscalculates. Advertising and promotional strategies may encourage consumers to believe that eating more of fat-modified food products is acceptable. According to one national survey conducted in 1996, about one-third of shoppers believed that it was alright to eat larger amounts of lowfat or fat-free products than the regular variety. This percentage, though large, was down from 42 percent the previous year, indicating that consumers may be learning that fat-free is not calorie-free (15).
Evidence that consumption of fat-modified food products may lead to overconsumption of other foods was provided by a study by Shide and Rolls (29), who found that when women knew they had eaten a lowfat food for breakfast, they ate more fat and calories at later meals than they would normally. However, this was a short-term study, examining food consumption behavior only over a 1-day period in a laboratory setting. Whether this effect would persist over time and/or would occur in a real-life situation would need to be established by other studies, including studies conducted with a free-living population.
Food Consumption Survey Data
The best information to date on the impact of consumption of fat-modified foods on the average consumer’s eating habits comes from analysis conducted by van der Reit et al. using data from USDA’ s Nationwide Food Consumption Survey 1987-88 and Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals 1989-91 and 1994 (39). These surveys collected dietary data from national samples of individuals including data on the use of fat-modified food products and its impact on the overall diet.
The researchers found no evidence of a tendency to overconsume reduced-fat foods. These foods were usually eaten in the same or smaller amounts as their regular versions. Use of reduced-fat foods was associated with a decrease in total fat intake. Nonusers of reduced-fat foods averaged 35 percent of calories from fat; those who used one or two reduced-fat foods averaged 32 percent calories from fat, and those consuming three or more reduced-fat foods had average fat intakes of 26 percent of total calories (fig. 2).
Saturated fat intake showed a corresponding decline, with nonusers of reduced-fat foods consuming 12 percent of calories from saturated fat, compared with an intake of 8 percent of calories from saturated fat among those using three or more reduced-fat products (39). These differences in fat and saturated fat intakes may reflect not only the use of reduced-fat food products but also a tendency to choose traditional foods that are naturally lower in fat and/or to prepare foods with less fat. Nevertheless, these findings do not support the assertion that consumers of fat-modified food products may compensate by increasing fat intake from other foods.
These decreases in fat and saturated fat intake were consistently found among population subgroups defined by age and sex or by racial/ethnic identification. The associations between use of reduced-fat foods and total caloric intake were less consistent. Among the total population, users of reduced-fat food products had total caloric intakes that were slightly higher than those of nonusers: 1,805 kcal/day for nonusers; 1,860 kcal/day for users of one to two reduced-fat food products; and 1,837 kcal/day for those using three or more reduced-fat food products (fig. 3). But within population subgroups, the associations were not consistent. For example, teenage males who used reduced-fat food products had higher caloric intakes than those who did not, but for female teenagers, the reverse was true (39). It is possible that different subgroups are using reduced-fat foods for different purposes–some to restrict both fat and calories and some to reduce fat only. It also is possible that some are simply more successful in using reduced-fat foods as part of an overall calorie reduction strategy. More examination of the motives for using fat-modified foods and related effects on caloric intake among specific population subgroups is needed.
These data suggest that for many individuals, use of fat-modified foods may be an effective strategy for decreasing the fat content of their diets. Research by Kristal et al. (23) indicates that it may also be a strategy that consumers find relatively easy to adopt and maintain, compared with other strategies that require more basic changes in eating habits, such as limiting the use of fats as spreads or flavorings.
Effects of Fat-Modified Food Use on Overall Diet Quality
Some nutritionists are concerned that use of fat-modified food products as a primary strategy for decreasing fat intake may result in diets of lower quality than if people lowered dietary fat by making changes in their basic eating patterns (21,32). Traditional lowfat diets may be valuable not only because of their decreased fat content, but also because an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, and grains usually accompanies the decrease in fat. Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and grains may contain more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and potentially beneficial phytochemicals than lowfat diets that consist mainly of reduced-fat versions of cookies, chips, and other products (21).
Little research has been done on the overall quality of the diets of people consuming fat-modified food products. Van der Reit et al. examined the association of consumption of reduced-fat food products with intakes of two vitamins–A and E; and two minerals–iron and zinc (39). The researchers found that vitamin A and iron intakes were higher among users of reduced-fat food products in the total population and among sub-populations identified by age, sex, and ethnicity. In the total population, users and nonusers of reduced-fat food products had similar intakes of vitamin E. Within population subgroups, there were differences in vitamin E intake between users and nonusers that seemed to parallel differences in caloric intake.
Similarly, zinc intakes of users of reduced-fat food products were higher in the total population, but within population subgroups, there were differences that corresponded to differences in caloric intake (39). These results do not demonstrate any negative effects of inclusion of reduced-fat food products in the diet. However, examination of any effects on intakes of other dietary components, particularly those such as carotenoids and dietary fiber for which plant-based foods are sources, is indicated.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Fat-modified foods have rapidly become a significant part of the American food supply, but their value as a means of improving the diets of Americans remains to be established. More research is needed to verify the nutritional benefits claimed for these products and/or identify any negative effects they may have.
Several research studies have been consistent in finding that consumption of fat-modified food products may be helpful for reducing fat intake. Their use does not seem to reduce calorie intake among most population segments; therefore, their value for weight control is doubtful. There is no evidence that regular use of fat-modified food products results in reduced vitamin or mineral intake or other decreases in diet quality. The research in this area is so limited, however, that it is premature to draw conclusions. Much more research examining the impact of the use of fat-modified food products on diet quality needs to be done.
The growing popularity of fat-modified food products offers challenges and opportunities for those engaged in nutrition education and promotion. Educational and promotional strategies are needed to help consumers realize that consumption of fat-modified foods will not automatically result in either a lowfat diet or weight reduction (21). There is evidence that consumers are able to assimilate these messages; for example, consumer beliefs that one can eat more of foods if they are lowfat have declined (15). Where economics is a concern, it is important that consumers realize that a lowfat diet can also be achieved using appropriately chosen conventional foods, since many fat-modified foods are more expensive than their regular counterparts.
Finally, those engaged in nutrition education and promotion must strive to develop messages that convince consumers that eating no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, while important, is not the only characteristic of a healthy diet. These messages should also motivate consumers to consume a diet with recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Ideally, it will be possible to capitalize on the consumer interest roused by fat-modified food products and use that interest to change overall eating habits that conform to the recommendations of the Food Guide Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
 Use of commercial or trade names does not imply approval or constitute endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
 Fat intakes by children ages 2 to 5 should be gradually decreased to no more than 30 percent of calories from fat (36).
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(3.) American Dietetic Association. 1991. ADA reports: Position of The American Dietetic Association: Fat replacements. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 91 (10): 1285-1288.
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(5.) Birch, L.L., Johnson, S.L., Jones, M.B., and Peters, J.C. 1993. Effects of a nonenergy fat substitute on children’s energy and macronutrient intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 58:326-333.
(6.) Calorie Control Council. 1996. Calorie Control Commentary 18(1): 1-5.
(7.) Derby, B.M. and Levy, A.S. 1996. Consumer and Market Impacts of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Presentation made at the Marketing and Public Policy Conference, Rosslyn, VA, May 17.
(8.) FDA Backgrounder. 1995. Olestra and other fat substitutes. BG95-18, November 28 issue.
(9.) Fensholt, C. 1996, February. Reiterating the 30% rule. Supermarket Business, pp. 37-39.
(10.) Food and Drug Administration. 1996. FDA Approves Fat Substitute, Olestra. Press Release. January 24 issue.
(11.) Food Labeling and Nutrition News. 1996. Snack sales drop. Vol.4 No.41, p. 12.
(12.) Food Labeling and Nutrition News. 1996. CSPI campaigns in `Diarrhea Capitals’ to inform public of alleged olestra dangers. Vol.4 No.37, p. 12.
(13.) Food Labeling and Nutrition News. 1997. CSPI takes anti-olestra campaign to Indianapolis. Vol.5 No.26, pp.7-8.
(14.) Food Marketing Institute. 1996. Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket, 1996.
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RELATED ARTICLE: Olestra
In the past year, foods containing olestra, a noncaloric fat substitute manufactured by Procter & Gamble, have begun to appear on American supermarket shelves. Olestra, chemically referred to as sucrose polyester, is formed by joining sucrose with fatty acids obtained from vegetable oils (17). Olestra is not broken down by digestive enzymes. It passes through the gastrointestinal tract without being digested and absorbed and therefore provides no calories.
Olestra tastes like fat and, unlike protein- and carbohydrate-based fat substitutes, it can be used in frying to make reduced-fat potato chips, french fries, and other fried foods. It can also be used as a fat substitute in baked goods, spreads, salad dressings, candy, ice cream, and other foods (17).
Most fat substitutes currently used by food manufacturers are classified by the FDA as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Olestra, as a novel ingredient, had to be approved by the FDA as a food additive. Procter & Gamble first petitioned FDA for approval of olestra as a food additive in 1987 (18). Between 1987 and 1995, Procter & Gamble submitted to FDA results of more than 150 studies on olestra’s physiological effects (8).
Two major concerns about the safety of olestra have been raised: The first is olestra’s effects on the absorption of some nutrients; the second is its gastrointestinal effects. Olestra has been found to impair the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. It also interferes with the absorption of carotenoids. Beta carotene is a precursor of vitamin A; some research suggests that other carotenoids may also have important health effects (21). In addition, it has been suggested that olestra may interfere with the absorption of some potentially beneficial phytochemicals (21).(1)
Olestra’s gastrointestinal effects occur because it passes through the digestive tract unabsorbed. As originally formulated, consumption of olestra could result in anal leakage. Reformulation appears to have alleviated this problem, at least partially, but olestra consumption still may result in loose stools and gastrointestinal distress (18).
The data presented by Procter & Gamble were reviewed by FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (CFSAN), Center for Veterinary Medicine, and Food Advisory Committee (8). Most members of the Food Advisory Committee accepted olestra’s safety, but a minority advised rejection of the petition (32). There also was vocal public opposition to approval of olestra; opposing groups included the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and Consumers Union (32). Nevertheless, in January 1996, FDA approved use of olestra as an additive in savory snacks, for example, potato chips and crackers. Olestra can be used to replace up to 100 percent of the conventional fat or oil used in one of these products, but for olestra to be used in other products, a new petition would have to be filed by Procter & Gamble and approved by FDA (18).
As a condition of approval, FDA required olestra-containing foods to be fortified with vitamins A, D, E, and K. Carotenoid fortification was not required; previously, the FDA Food Advisory Committee had considered carotenoid depletion by olestra, with most members concluding that they were reasonably certain that no harm would result from the effects of olestra on carotenoids (10). In addition, FDA requires that olestra-containing products bear the label statement:
“This product contains olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and
loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other
nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added.”
Finally, FDA required Procter & Gamble to conduct studies monitoring olestra’s consumption and its long-term effects. FDA announced its plans to review the data within 30 months of olestra’s approval (June, 1998) (10).
Procter & Gamble is now marketing “olean,” its brand name for olestra, as an ingredient in snack products. Frito-Lay has become the first company to market a snack–potato chips–made with olestra (11). Procter & Gamble has also announced plans to market its own brand of olestra-containing potato chips (18).
Despite FDA approval of olestra, consumers have continued to protest the product. In particular, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has campaigned actively to inform the public of what it perceives to be the negative effects of olestra (12). With olestra-containing products still available only in limited markets, the degree of consumer acceptance they will enjoy remains to be seen. However, during the first 4 weeks of test marketing in Indiana, 4 million servings of chips were sold and no complaints from consumers were received (13). The popularity of snacks containing olestra (as measured by sales), along with the results of FDA’s postmarket review of olestra’s effects, could have a critical effect on future development and marketing of olestra-containing products. If sales are good and no negative effects are found, it may encourage the manufacturer to seek approval for olestra’s inclusion in a broader range of products. If either the FDA review or consumer reaction is negative, olestra may fade from the scene.
(1)Phytochemicals are defined as non-nutrient, physiologically active components of plants (21). Investigation of their potential health properties is an emerging area of research.
Nancy E. Schwenk
Joanne F. Guthrie
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
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