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The Big Fat Lie of the Fat-Free Food Movement

For decades, consumers were duped into believing that a fat-free food label would put them on the fast track to weight loss, when the complete opposite was true. Here’s the real skinny behind the marketing campaigns that defied the core tenets of nutrition

Dietary fats are a vital component of the regular diets of nearly all mammals. They collectively comprise one of the three macronutrient food sources — along with protein and carbohydrates — that are eligible for consumption. However, for several decades of the 20th century, millions of human beings fell prey to advertising campaigns and misinformation suggesting that we’d all be better off without fats.

The earliest advocacy for fat-free dieting was actually rooted in sound medical reasoning, and isolated to cases where it might have proven to be legitimately beneficial. In 1929, renowned baby expert, author and reporter Myrtle Meyer Eldred explained in the Des Moines Register how some children find all dietary fats problematic, and how fat-free substitutes might help to alleviate some of that fat-spawned irritation. “Buttermilk made from churned sour milk is entirely fat free, and for those children who find fat in any form irritating, it is a more successful food than skimmed milk, which cannot be made entirely free of fat,” she wrote.

Similarly, in February 1931, the York Dispatch published a column by Dr. Logan Clendening in which a fat-free diet was advised for combating a very different medical malady — inflammation of the gallbladder. “Gallbladder inflammation of the mild catarrhal form is usually amenable to medical care,” Clendening explained. “The arrangement of the diet is based on known facts of physiology — that bile is used in the digestion of fat. A fat-free diet is therefore indicated.”

However, even in this era, less medically sound anti-fat sentiments were brewing, with serious consequences. Dr. Philip Lovell published a column in the Los Angeles Times in July 1933 about a woman who eschewed fats permanently at the advice of her doctor in order to lose 40 to 45 pounds. “She reduced weight wonderfully,” wrote Lovell. “She kept up her strength, although she suffered from an occasional headache. In less than two months, she lost 40 pounds. All would have been sweet and rosy. It would have been a marvelous diet were it not for the fact that she died at the close of her fat-free diet. I think the doctor called it a heart block. I would call it a crazy fat-free diet — a terrible price to pay for ignorance.”

Basically, she hindered all of the essential bodily functions that are only optimized through the ingestion of dietary fats. The production of key hormones and the regulation of cellular function both mandate the presence of fats, not to mention that the ingested forms of certain vitamins — A, D, E and K — are only capable of being properly administered to the body after being absorbed by dietary fat. Or more simply put, zero fat consumption is far from a good thing.

Unfortunately, other popular diets during the 1930s and 1940s also focused on the elimination of fat as a temporary salve for psoriasis and celiac disease.

The Dairy Industry Starts the Confusion

The first true conflation of body fat and dietary fat appears to have been born out of the aggressive promotion of skim milk by the dairy industry. Newspaper ads began to surface that hawked fat-free milk as the requisite tool for a svelte appearance. 

1950s-era ad for fat-free milk

These ads created sufficient confusion over the appearance of the new fat-free terminology, which numerous nutrition writers attempted to explain was nothing more than skim milk with new branding. Nonetheless, within the next decade, fat-free milk was joined by fat-free cheese and fat-free oil; all of which were plainly positioned as calorie cutters that could evoke weight loss.

Fat-free cheese ad from 1964

By the time fat-free ice cream and yogurt emerged in the 1970s, nutrition specialists were inundated with queries wondering how eating something as sweet as ice cream might fail to culminate in the production of further body fat. To that end, Frederick Stare from Harvard’s Department of Nutrition published a syndicated column in 1974 in an ill-fated effort to clarify the misconception. “The fact that some skim-milk yogurts are advertised as 99 percent fat free may lead the consumer to believe that yogurt is a low-calorie or ‘nonfattening’ food. The person who is eating sweetened yogurt as a dessert, a snack or a meal, believing it to be low in calories because it is 99 percent fat free may be surprised to learn that a half-cup serving of ice cream or a small sandwich would actually be lower in calories than a cup of yogurt,” he explained.

Needless to say, it fell on deaf ears. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, everything from fat-free soups to fat-free deli meats began to be marketed to consumers. 

But then, in August 1986, dietitians and nutritionists went to war over the issue of fat consumption. The battle was touched off by the American Heart Association (AHA), which lowered its recommendation that 40 percent of all calories should come from fat down to 30 percent — advice that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) took exception to. Since a gram of fat possesses more than twice as many calories as a gram of protein or carbohydrates, this reduction actually entailed that fat intake would amount to less than 20 percent of a diet in terms of the weight consumed.

The Cox New Service reported that Dr. William Weidman of the AHA made a statement to the effect that there was “significant indirect evidence” that such a reduction of fat would have a positive effect. (He also admitted, however, that it might take “another 30 years” to see if there was any benefit to the change, before concluding that “it’s certainly not going to hurt anyone.”) Laurence Finberg, chairman of the AAP, vehemently disagreed. “Based on the research, we can’t say we need to limit fat intake to 30 percent,” he argued. “And we’re not sure that if we did, we wouldn’t be harming normal development in children and causing other problems.”

‘Fat-Free’ Fails

During the early 1990s, fat-free food products had taken over the shelves of supermarkets, with the fat-free label now adorning everything from salad dressing, mayonnaise and sour cream to Fig Newtons and other cookies. Jane Snow of the Akron Beacon Journal reported in June 1992 that the advent of such fat-free items was in response to a reported 44 percent of Americans who professed to want to limit the fat in their diets, but also noted that there was a catch involved. “With few exceptions, the price of fat-free products is higher than for the regular items,” Snow wrote. “Miracle Whip Free was $1.49 in one store, compared to Miracle Whip at $1.39. Kraft Free Singles cheese was $2.49, and regular Kraft Singles, $2.29.”

Snow also provided a chart showing that the price being paid ultimately resulted in very little in the way of a per-serving caloric difference, with the fat-free offerings often providing a material reduction of only 10 to 20 calories per serving, while in some cases the fat-free products delivered even more calories.

With “diet” products like this, it’s no wonder that Americans kept gaining weight despite eating so many fat-free foods. “The fat-free food sounds magical,” an American Dietetic Association spokesperson (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) told The Tennessean in January 1996. “We might think we can eat all we want and still get fat, but that’s simply not the case.”

Marli Murphy of the Kansas City Star reported later that same year that Americans had reduced their fat intake by about 16 percent between the 1970s and the 1990s, but that they still weighed about 12 pounds more on average than in 1978. Yet, rather than pin the increase in weight on the most logical culprit — the consumption of sugar — Murphy reported how the USDA attributed the undesired weight gain to a reduction in physical exercise. “Too many of us, it appears, are sitting on our fatty acids,” joked Murphy.

Soon, though, the fat-free jig was up. By the late 1990s, there was an 11-percentage-point reduction in the number of American households that regularly purchased such items. Even so, it still took another decade before health columnists finally had carte blanche to drive a well-sharpened stake through the heart of the fat-free movement. “We sometimes tend to overeat fat-free foods because we think, ‘Oh, this is fat-free, I can eat as much as I want,’” Lacy Ngo of the Rock Hill Herald wrote, now stating the obvious. “Fat-free products will have calories, so you should stick to a serving size or you will end up eating the same or more calories than you would have with the higher-fat product.”

At last, consumers were finally being fed the big fat truth.