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Myth: 95% fat free means only 5% of the calories are from fat

TRUTH: Even though a basic elementary school education would tell us that 100%-95% = 5%, this is, in fact, just not true when it comes to food claims. As many of you may know, my usual approach to food and nutrition is that of applying common sense. However, in this case, common sense won’t do you any good.

Let me start with an example: One serving (3 ounces) of 95% fat free ground beef contains 164 calories. If I were to assume that 95% fat free ground turkey contains only 5% of the calories from fat:

5% of 164 calories = 1.6 calories (aka almost a fifth of a gram of fat).

In actuality, it has 6 grams of fat, 30x more than I calculated. So, how can they claim that it’s 95% fat free?!

95% fat free means that in 100 grams of a food, no more than 5 grams comes from fat. This is very, very deceptive for a couple reasons:

  1. We generally don’t talk about foods in terms of weight.
  2. Fat contains more calories per gram than any other nutrient (alcohol, carbohydrates, or protein); so even if your food has only 1 gram of fat per 100 grams, the calories from fat add up more quickly.

So if 5% of the weight is from fat, what does it mean in terms of calories? Usually, 95% fat free items contain about 30-60% fat calories. That’s not going to be true for every food but the aforementioned beef, for instance, contains 35% of the calories from fat or 58 fat calories. That’s a lot more fat-calories than I’d expect from a 95% fat free item!

If I haven’t confused you enough yet, consider this: everything you learned about rounding up (i.e. if it’s .5 or more, you round up to the next whole number), doesn’t apply to food labels. Again, this makes no sense to me. If there’s half a gram of trans fat in a serving, it can be labeled as zero. As we know, people often have more than 1 serving of an item – so you might actually be having a gram or more of trans fats! It won’t kill you, but wouldn’t you like to know about it?!

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t take claims on food packages at face value. The regulations about claims for food packages are loose and don’t always distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. To truly know what’s in your food, you have to read the fact label and ingredient list.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

  1. FDA’s rules and regulations – what the claims actually mean
  2. New York Times article: 6 Meaningless Claims on Food Labels

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