Big Flavors--No Fat : These desserts look and taste like high-fat treats. They're not. : Or Empty Promises?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fat-free is the buzzword of the '90s.

--Martin Friedman, Gorman's New Product News

Do fat-free foods offer consumers a palatable alternative to a serious nutritional hazard, or are they just another in a long line of simplistic health fads?

The promise of reducing saturated fat--a dietary villain that increases the risk of heart disease and cancer--is enticing. Especially if a product's taste, texture and shelf life are not measurably diminished.

Some industry observers hail the proliferation of fat-free foods as the most important product development since the debut of artificial sweeteners two decades ago. Others, however, say that while the expanding line of fat-free foods may offer an alternative to high-fat sweets, manufacturers promise more than the products are likely to deliver.

Interest in fat-free products has soared since health officials started advising Americans to reduce their daily fat intake to only 30% of total calories, down from the current 40% or more. But high-fat foods--ice cream, cheese, deli foods, meat--are among consumer favorites and are thus difficult to sacrifice.

To the rescue come many of these same foods, but without fat's heavy baggage.

"Fat-free is the buzzword of the '90s. . . . I haven't seen a phenomenon like this in a long while," says Martin Friedman, editor of Gorman's New Product News, an authoritative trade journal that tracks the introduction of household goods. "In the next five years, the sales of fat-free foods will surpass anything done by fiber, oat bran, microwaveable or low-cholesterol items."

Friedman estimates that sales of fat-free foods will be $350 million in 1991, an impressive achievement considering that the category was introduced barely one year ago. He says the products will eventually generate a billion dollars annually.

Surprisingly, the fat reductions are made possible by reformulating traditional ingredients, not with a mysterious artificial substitute. For instance, egg whites replace whole eggs, and nonfat dry milk is used in place of whole milk. (There is one approved fat substitute--the NutraSweet Co.'s Simplesse--but it is currently being used in a single frozen dessert line: Simple The leader in the field is Kraft General Foods, which is marketing fat-free versions of cheese slices, yogurts, salad dressings, frozen desserts and bakery products.

"Consumer acceptance of our products has been outstanding," says Sandy Morreale, a Kraft General Foods nutritionist. "They like them and they use them."

According to Kraft representatives, the fat reductions are achieved through a "new way of blending the same ingredients that have been used for years" but with a higher degree of technology.

In a subtle criticism of NutraSweet and other firms developing fat substitutes, Kraft General Foods claims consumers are more "comfortable" with their approach.

"Nothing new or different is introduced into the food supply," Morreale says. "We are making these products from things consumers have been eating all along."

Recently the Glenview, Ill.-based firm announced what it calls a "revolutionary" development: fat-free versions of its mayonnaise and Miracle Whip spread.

Product analyst Friedman praises Kraft General Food's latest fat-free entry.

"Mayonnaise is mostly oil and eggs," he says. "And what is this? A mayonnaise with no oil and no eggs? Amazing."

Skeptics are not so generous.

One Washington-based consumer advocacy group says that several manufacturers of fat-free foods are making exaggerated product claims. "Kraft is stretching the truth and confusing consumers," says Bruce Silverglade, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In order for a product to be called "fat-free," the federal government requires that there be less than one-half gram of fat per serving. Silverglade says that some products meet this standard by establishing unrealistically small serving sizes for their products.

"Some of these products are low in fat but not fat-free," he says.

As an example, Silverglade points to the fat-free salad dressings.

"The federal government says the standard serving size for salad dressing is two tablespoons per person." he says. "Yet these companies are saying on the labels that the typical serving is one tablespoon (in order to meet the fat-free standard of one-half gram per serving)." Kraft is just one company that sets its serving size at one tablespoon.

While not identifying any particular company, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that inaccurate serving sizes have come to the agency's attention.

"There's no question that FDA has been concerned about the manipulation of serving sizes for various products," says the FDA's Chris Lecos in Washington. "It is still a matter of considerable debate."

In fact, the FDA will hold a public hearing in Washington today on the issue. The forum is part of several being conducted by the agency to ascertain the shape of new food labeling regulations that will deal with serving sizes, health claims and other issues by Nov. 8, as required by recent legislation.

A Kraft General Foods representative, Kathy Knuth, denies that the firm was using inaccurate serving sizes on its fat-free foods.

"That's not true," she says. "The serving size we use is the same one that's been around since serving sizes were invented."

Knuth says that even if the federal government established two tablespoons as the typical salad dressing serving, the Kraft General Foods fat-free products would qualify.

"If the standard should become two tablespoons then our dressing would still conform," Knuth says. "Our Italian dressing has six calories per tablespoon. That's minuscule."

Even so, Silverglade and other skeptics point to the history of artificial sweeteners as a barometer for what may happen with fat-free products. In the 20 years that sugar substitutes have been on the market, the per capita consumption of sugar in this country has actually increased.

"Our experience with low-calorie sweeteners shows that (despite widespread availability) people do not reduce their sugar intake," says Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., chair of the UC Davis nutrition department. "People may use fat-free mayonnaise on a sandwich and then think they don't have to worry about adding that extra piece of baloney. It would be better if they just used less mayonnaise."

Schneeman, who served on the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, says that the emergence of fat-free products is "helpful" in that it will present more choices to people concerned about fat intake.

"You want a range of products available in order to choose diets low in fat . . . including fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy foods," she says. "People need to recognize what an ideal or reasonable diet looks like."

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