When Fat-Free Makes No Sense

Raise your hand if you’re a sour cream fan!

Whether dolloped with chives onto a baked potato, cooling a hot soup, or sweetened with freshly picked berries, there’s nothing quite like it.

Traditional sour cream is a dairy product rich in fats (12-17%). It is made by fermenting cream with certain types of lactic acid bacteria. The fermentation process thickens the cream and sours it a bit, hence the name.

But alas, the fat content is high, and the calorie count too. And that’s where the low fat and no-fat solutions come in. The question is, at what price?

What you need to know:

We took a look at three sour cream variations from Tillamook, considered one of the better quality sour creams out there.

A serving size is 2 tablespoons, with 60 calories for the full fat product, 40 for the low-fat, and 20 for the non-fat version. As you would expect.

But then we inspected the ingredient lists:

Regular’s Ingredients [3 of them]:
Cultured pasteurized grade A cream and milk, enzymes.

Low-Fat’s Ingredients [12]:
Cultured Milk, Cream, Nonfat Dry Milk, Whey, Modified Corn Starch, Sodium Phosphate, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Calcium Sulfate, Locust Bean Gum, Gelatin, Vitamin A Palmitate.

Fat Free’s Ingredients [12]:
Cultured Lowfat Milk, Modified Corn Starch,Whey Protein Concentrate, Propylene Glycol Monoester, Artificial Color, Gelatin, Sodium Phosphate, Agar Gum, Xanthan Gum, Sodium Citrate, Locust Bean Gum, Vitamin A Palmitate.

Basically the low and non-fat options had a big challenge once removing the fat – how to keep the “sour cream” product looking and tasting like a real sour cream? Food scientists started mixing various additives together until they reached the closest possible resemblance.

And what did they add? Propylene Glycol Monoester is an emulsifier that helps aerate creams (and dough for baking). Corn starch, Gelatin, Agar Gum, Locust Bean, and Xantham Gum help with the viscosity of the product that is lost once the the fat gone. Artificial color is an interesting additive. Probably a combination of colors meant to keep the mix above silky white. Not good.

While some people may revel in the 40 calories saved here, perhaps they should think about the bigger picture. With proper portion control and less junk food, the 40 calorie differential doesn’t make sense. Especially since the synthesized alternatives don’t taste as good as the original full fat sour cream.

Another issue to think about is the psychology of low-fat selections. I’m having a “good” none-fat product now, which means I have earned the right to eat something “bad” later. Or – I’ll have the 16 oz steak with a baked potato and fat free sour cream, instead of the 12 oz steak.

What to do at the supermarket:

When considering low-fat and non-fat options of your favorite foods, it makes sense to look at the calorie savings and weigh that against the changes in the product formulation. In some cases, it simply doesn’t make sense.

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  • http://the50besthealthblogs.blogspot.com/ The 50 Best Health Blogs

    Wow, just looking at the ingredient list would be enough to make me choose the real — I mean regular — version.

    Jim Purdy

  • Bill

    My wife recently started making our own sour cream. Heavy (organic, local) cream and some lemon juice. Seal and let sit a couple of days. I love it on baked (microwaved) potatoes with salsa.

  • Beth

    I agree completely and always choose the product without the added junk; however, I’d also avoid the 12 oz. steak. Four to six ounces is much more reasonable.

  • Heidi

    wow, i never noticed that.. i guess it is one thing like milk where i assumed it would be the same ingredients.. CRAZY!!!!

  • Kymmy

    There is only one choice to eating healthy, choose the real – no chemicals! If you are that worried about the calories, use less!

  • http://bakememore.com Laurel

    We use greek yogurt… my kids have no idea it’s not sour cream.

  • carol

    Not all reduced or low-fat sour creams contain all that junk. Some have just the dairy ingredients and a little corn starch for thickening. But if you want something with a more creamy mouthfeel than 100% yogurt (and especially “Greek style” which can be deficient in that department) but lower in fat/calories, so you can use more than 2 Tbsp (a serving size most people won’t want to limit themselves to), you can also mix regular sour cream with non- or low-fat plain yogurt at 50:50.

  • Jason

    I agree with the greek-style. It has a very similar bite to sour cream. It is pricier, but you are getting something that is fat-free (no sugar, colors, or flavors added) and loaded with (a complete) protein. Tastes fine on potatoes and is a utterly natural way to balance out a meal with protein. Love the stuff.

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    The first thing I tell people looking to avoid food additives: never buy anything low-fat, diet, reduced calorie, nonfat, sugar-free, etc. Those are the most toxic substances in our stores (besides children’s medicines and electrolyte drinks for babies). There will always be more toxic crap added to the diet versions in an attempt to make them palatable.

    Before you dismiss cornstarch or pectin as additives, you should read up on them a little bit. Cornstarch is always GMO corn processed to an unrecognizable free gluatamic acid additive. If you don’t believe how toxic it can be just try eating a teaspoon of it once you have a clean diet and watch your body rebel.

  • http://www.foodhuntersguide.com The Food Hunter

    I try to stick to the 5 ingredients or less rule when I buy things.

  • Anna

    More people need this article! I cringe away from high levels of saturated fat bc of years of people saying it is bad, but because of that, I was only getting 3 percent of my daily calories from fat, which does more harm than good.

  • Mr Mark

    Give me a break. We grew up with bad advice about food. It is largely just a business. Eat what you like and watch your weight. Adjust portions as your metabolism slows with age. Get some exercise every day. Eliminate stress.

  • ImaMe

    Eating is not that difficult, everything in moderation!

  • chukka

    The fat free sour cream tasted great — and for some of us YES the calorie savings counts. There’s plenty of crappy additives in other foods too, and for some of us it’s not a big deal. Very disappointed that Tillamook discontinued it. Greek yogurt is a poor substitute.