Fat Substitutes: Could They Be Leading to Your Weight Gain?

They're hiding in everything from low-fat cottage cheese to protein shakes.

Fat Substitutes: Could They Be Leading to Your Weight Gain?

Fat substitutes are compounds that resemble the chemical and physical properties of certain fats and oils and are often used to replace conventional fats (butter, oil) in baking and frying. They can help bring calorie counts down.

But fat substitutes are almost like secret ingredients that hide in plain sight, says Mark Schatzker, author of the upcoming book "The End of Craving: Recovering the Lost Wisdom of Eating Well."


"Any food that contains fat is an opportunity for a food manufacturer to use a fat replacer," Schatzker said. He likes to call these substitutes "artificial fats" and says they are "sneakily added to some of your favorite foods and could be a cause of weight gain."


What's an Example of a Fat Replacement?

According to researchers at the University of Michigan, fat substitutes can be based in carbohydrates (made from starchy foods like corn, cereals, and grains), protein (made from eggs whites or whey such as Simplesse), or fat (made by replacing triglycerides in vegetable oils like Benefat and Olean).

Most fat replacers today are made from carbohydrates and include commonly heard ingredients such as cellulose, gelatin, modified dietary fibers, and gums.

Are Fat Substitutes Good or Bad?

There is no clear answer. Perhaps the most well-known fat substitute is Olestra, an FDA-approved, no-calorie fat replacement. Studies have found that using fat replacers like Olestra may lead to weight loss. But other studies contradict that and note when people use fat substitutes, they often end up eating more carbs, and therefore end up consuming more calories.

Further, studies have shown that Olestra inhibits the absorption of key vitamins and nutrients. Reported side effects included cramping, bloating, and loose stools.

Researchers at the University of Michigan say that more studies are needed.

What Kinds of Foods Are They Hiding In?

"A better question might be, what foods aren't these found in?" Schatzker said. "I've found them in ice cream, yogurt, soups, gravies, pastries, chocolate milk, salad dressing and whipping creams."

Schatzker says he has seen these faux fats hiding in low-fat cottage cheese as citric acid and guar gum, and in "healthy" versions of cream of chicken soup (soy protein isolate). It's nutritional protein drinks that may have the most fat substitutes Schatzer has ever seen: He found five different fats substitutes in one drink, including whey protein concentrate and carrageenan.

How Can You Avoid Fat Replacements?

Check the labels. If you're buying processed foods, opt for items with the least amount of ingredients. Choose fruits and vegetables and cook your own meals (if you can).

Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian before trying any fat replacements.

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