HFG nutrition director Catherine Saxelby shines her spotlight on the ‘lite’ food phenomenon. (Adapted from Catherine Saxelby’s e-book Shopper’s Guide to Light Foods for Weight Loss.)
When light (or ‘lite’) foods first appeared on our supermarket shelves way back in the 1990s, they seemed like the answer to our weight-loss prayers. Light yoghurts had half the fat but all the taste; light cream still tasted like cream but had a third less butterfat; and, of course, the light milks had less fat than full cream but tasted so much better than the thin, watery skim milks that had come before them. Perfect!
But these days, we’ve moved on from yoghurts and milks. There’s now a huge array of products at the supermarket labelled ‘light’ or ‘lite’ – with items ranging from biscuits to beer and everything in between.
Unfortunately, not all these product spin-offs are genuinely light. In fact, some foods have been allowed to jump on the ‘light’ bandwagon, without really saving you anything in the kilojoules department.
So what are light foods, anyway?
Light (or ‘lite’) foods are foods that have been ‘lightened’ in some way. This can refer to a lower fat, salt and alcohol content, but may also refer to the texture or colour of a food. Light foods are different to foods that are labelled ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ or ‘diet’ – these are other distinct categories, with their own labelling laws. In this report, we’re only looking at foods using the ‘light’ or ‘lite’ label.
Lightweights of the ‘light’ category
Most of us have, at one stage or another, suspected that some ‘light’ foods may not be what they seem. Ask anyone who’s interested in nutrition and healthy eating and they’ll tell you that while there may be less fat in some light products, it’s probably been replaced with extra sugar or some other mysterious ingredients.
The most obvious light ‘pretender’ is light olive oil, which is light in flavour but not in fat or kilojoules. But there are other foods, such as light muffins, light chocolate, light ice-cream and light peanut butter, that really struggle to make it into the light category. Why? Well, with these ‘mixed’ foods, the manufacturer can take out some of the fat, but has to add something else to the mix to give the product a decent flavour or to keep the creamy smoothness. You wouldn’t want peanut butter that you couldn’t spread. Or a tub of ice-cream that was frozen solid! So even if there’s 30 per cent less fat with these ‘light’ foods, you may often only end up saving about 10 per cent of overall kilojoules.
Other things come into play as well, such as the extra sugar, fruit purée or thickeners (such as modified cornstarch or maltodextrin) that have to be added to make the product taste nice. So with all that in mind, which of these products make a real difference to your waistline?
Group 1: Leading lights
You’ll save significant fat and kilojoules when you buy from this first group of light foods. The best example is to compare regular cream to its light version. You’ll notice the fat drop from 35 per cent to 18 per cent – a huge saving of 50 per cent – and the kilojoules also drop by around 50 per cent. This is the ideal saving and makes any small loss of flavour or texture worth the sacrifice! It happens when only one nutrient is lowered – such as fat – and nothing else is added back.
Light blackcurrant juice drink – save 77% kJ Ribena Light is identical to the regular version, minus the sugar content and kilojoules. It has 78 per cent less sugar – a huge drop in kilojoules.
Light cream cheese – save 38% kJ Cream cheese has a third of the fat of butter. The light version cuts fat in half and saves you about 40 per cent in kilojoules. The texture is maintained with cottage cheese and skim milk.
Light muffins – save 37% kJ There’s less than one-tenth the fat, but not as huge a drop in kilojoules thanks to the extra sugar and flour added to make them taste good. Be wary: you’re still eating a lot of kilojoules.
Light coconut milk – save 57% kJ Coconut milk is usually big on ‘bad’ saturated fat. Light coconut milk can save up to half the fat. Buy a brand with 11g of fat per 100g or less.
Light sour cream – save 44% kJ It has half the fat and half the kilojoules. And extra-light sour cream has anywhere from 3 to 10 per cent fat, which is similar in fat content to a full-fat natural yoghurt.
Light soy milk – save 37% kJ Similar savings are found here as those found with regular milk (see below). If you want to lose weight or cut down on fat, it is worthwhile to choose the light version of soy milk.
Light evaporated canned milk – save 39% kJ A huge drop in fat content from 8g to 1g per 100ml, but you only get a 40 per cent saving in overall kilojoules. Why? As water is removed from milk, the natural milk sugars are concentrated, so the kilojoule count rises.
Light milk – save 35% kJ On the label, milk doesn’t look that high in fat at only 3.5 per cent or 3.5g per 100ml. But if you drink two cups a day, that fat intake quickly rises to a hefty 17g. By buying light you’ll save on fat.
Light probiotic drink – save 32% kJ The fat stays the same (at 0.1 per cent) but the sugar drops from 12 to 7g per bottle thanks to the sweetener sucralose. You save 69 kilojoules but you will notice the light version is a tad more watery and tastes a lot sweeter.
Light cream – save 44% kJ You’ll drop about half the fat and half the kilojoules. Try replacing double/thickened cream with Greek yoghurt – it has only 10 per cent fat compared to cream’s 48 per cent.
Group 2: Less than light?
If you’re focused on weight loss, you really need to get a kilojoule saving of 30 per cent or more – otherwise there’s not much point making the switch. And this second group of light foods doesn’t necessarily save you considerable kilojoules. However, these products may still be better health choices if you’re looking to reduce your saturated fat or sodium intake – so be sure to check the label.
Light cracker biscuits – save 15% kJ By choosing the light variety, you save 86 per cent fat but there is only a 15 per cent saving in kilojoules. This is because the light version has more carbohydrate to improve the taste.
Light ice-cream – save 27% kJ You’ll save 80 per cent in fat buying light ice-cream, but only 27 per cent in kilojoules. Why? Extra sugar and additives such as maltodextrin have to be added to maintain a creamy texture.
Light sweet biscuits – save 15% kJ Two regular tartlets (25g) have 4.6g fat and 480 kilojoules while two light tartlets (27g) have 1.8g fat and 436 kilojoules. Less fat doesn’t translate into that many less kilojoules.
Light table spread – save 21% kJ Here the fat is replaced with water, so the fat reduction is mirrored in a kilojoule reduction. The downside is, it can make your toast go soggy! And you can’t cook with it, as it spits.
Light chocolate – save 12–50% kJ Here, savings are simply due to the fact you’re eating about 35 per cent less chocolate! Cadbury Lite saves just 12 per cent fat and 15 per cent kilojoules. Hardly worth the trade!
Light yoghurt or dairy dessert– save 17% kJ Light fruit yoghurt saves you fat and kilojoules. The creamy texture is maintained by adding gums; the sweet mouth-feel is maintained by adding a little more sugar.
Light peanut butter – save 12% kJ You get a huge drop in fat content from 53g to 38g per 100g: but you’ll only get a 12 per cent saving in overall kilojoules. Why? Starch thickener and more sugar have been added.
Light cheddar cheese – save 17% kJ The 17 per cent saving in kilojoules isn’t huge. However, light cheese does have 25 per cent less fat, most of which is saturated, so it’s still a better choice health-wise.
Light potato crisps – save 11% kJ Don’t confuse total fat with saturated fat. Many crisp (chip) brands advertise ‘75 per cent less saturated fat’ but you don’t save on total fat, you just get less ‘bad fat’ and more of the healthier fat.
Light popcorn – save 16% kJ You’d think a 43 per cent drop in fat would mean a lot less kilojoules – but you save just 16 per cent! So a big bag of popcorn is still bad news.
Group 3: Lightweights
These products might save you something, but they don’t save you anything in the way of kilojoules – so they’re not for those of us looking to cut back our kilojoule intake using light foods.
Light olive oil – SAVE NOTHING! No savings here! Light olive oil is light in colour and flavour – but still packs in a hefty 100 per cent fat. It’s the same fat and kilojoule count as regular oil but without the strong flavour. Don’t be fooled by this one!
Light gravy powder – save 40% SODIUM No difference in fat or kilojoules here. The ‘light’ means reduced salt or sodium, about 40 per cent less. Traditional gravy powder has 610mg sodium per 100ml of made-up gravy, while the light version comes in at 360mg.
Making light of the situation
So are light foods worth buying? Well, some are, and some aren’t. It all depends on the product and what’s being reduced. You also have to ask yourself whether the light version is ‘worth it’ and how much loss in flavour and texture you’re sacrificing.
If you’re looking to restrict your kilojoule intake, you need to pick light foods that you like, and that don’t represent any suffering to you. If you love chocolate, you may not want to compromise on taste. Forget any thoughts of the light version! But adding some light cream to your pumpkin soup, or making a laksa with light coconut milk, doesn’t really affect the flavour of the final dish – and saves you an endurance workout at the gym.
Furthermore, taste buds do adjust to less creaminess and less sweetness after a while. We don’t mind the taste of the low-fat light white milks anymore after years of drinking them and find a full-fat milk tastes too rich and buttery. Ditto for light cheddar – if you do a taste test side-by-side of light compared to ordinary cheddar, you would pick the difference. But on its own, in a sandwich or with cracker biscuits, there’s no suffering.
Finally, we probably should just admit that some treat foods weren’t meant to be light. Better to enjoy ‘real’ chocolate, cakes or peanut butter than stick with the less-tasty ‘light’ versions – especially when all you can eat is about 10 per cent more.
The lighter side of chocolate
There are four ways chocolate manufacturers can ‘lighten’ chocolate. They can:
Aerate or whip it while it’s still warm so there’s more air incorporated. A less-dense chocolate means you consume fewer kilojoules because you’re eating less chocolate, like an Aero bar.
Enrobe the centre, but keep the filling light: 60g of solid milk chocolate gives you 1295 kJ, but 60g of choc-coated bar (such as a Milky Way) is less, at only 1045 kJ
Replace the sugar or fat with polydextrose or another bulking agent, as well as lower kilojoule sugar replacers such as isomalt, which is found in Cadbury Lite chocolate.
Sell less weight of chocolate. For example, a regular Mars Bar Fun Size weighs 22g while the Mars Bar Lite is only 16g. You save because you’re eating 6g less chocolate and filling overall!
So in summary...
Remember: you can’t eat twice as much if you want to lose weight. Choose the light version but stick to the same portion size.
Check what is being ‘light’-ened – is it the fat, salt, alcohol or just the texture or colour?
Fat adds flavour. If you take the fat out, the manufacturer has to put something else in to give a light food enough flavour and mouth-feel to make it tasty. Check how much less fat and fewer kilojoules you’re getting. If it’s less than 30 per cent reduction in kilojoules, forget it!
The ingredient or quality being lightened must be stated on the label. So light olive oil must say it’s got a ‘mild’ or ‘light’ flavour.
Sometimes it’s more flavoursome and enjoyable to eat a small amount of the full-fat regular version than lots of a light substitute.
The complete version of this e-book Shopper’s Guide to Light Foods for Weight Loss is available at www.foodwatch.com.au. RRP $29.