‘Low Fat’ Food Labels Probably Don’t Mean What You Think

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Man looking at food label in the grocery store.
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If you are like many folks, you believe that low-fat foods are also likely to be lower in sugar. But that is not necessarily the case.

This mismatch between what consumers believe “low fat” labels signify and what they actually indicate means the labels might be leading consumers astray — and backfiring on manufacturers, according to researchers in Germany.

Researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg discovered that many people in the U.S. jump to the conclusion that low-fat products contain lower levels of sugar. Once they realize the truth, they feel misled and are less likely to purchase the products in the future.

For the study, researchers asked 760 Americans to rate calorie content, sugar content and fat content of yogurt on a scale of one to seven.

While the respondents correctly guessed that low-fat yogurt has reduced calorie content, they mistakenly believed low-fat yogurt also had lower levels of sugar than standard yogurt.

A separate group that saw low-fat products with nutritional information printed on the package were less likely to assume that low-fat yogurt is also low in sugar. However, once they realized that the sugar content was not reduced, they were less likely to buy the product.

In a summary of the findings, lead author of the study and economist Steffen Jahn says:

“Our study shows that consumers can feel deceived by a product because, even though ‘low fat’ claims by manufacturers are technically true, a part of the truth is concealed.”

Jahn suggests that some manufacturers take advantage of the fact that some people assume low-fat products are also low in sugar. He cited the example of one cake mix marketed in Australia that touted the fact that it was 97% fat-free. The product contained 55% sugar.

Manufacturers who want to keep customers over the long haul should reconsider using the “low fat” label on their products, Jahn concludes.

The researchers’ findings were published in Food Quality and Preference, which is the official journal of the European Sensory Science Society.

If you are trying to eat better, check out “12 Foods You May Never Want to Buy Again.”

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