Determining the taste difference between the wide range of fat-free foods commercially available and their original counterparts is both a matter of sensitivity and the chemical make-up of the foods themselves. A variety of informal studies indicate that the degree of taste difference depends on individual products, but there is a noticeable difference between those foods with fat content and those without.
Degrees of Fat Content
Jodie Shield, nutrition consultant to the Chicago Tribune, states in an article on Weight Watcher’s website that an important differentiating factor in the fat content of a product is just how much fat is left. For instance, fat-free cheese must contain less than 0.5 g of fat per serving, while a product that is offered as being “reduced fat” contains much more – just 25 percent less of whatever fat content the original product could be expected to contain. Shield indicates that the degree of fat removed can affect both taste and consistency.
A student at the University of Southern California taste-tested 44 individuals in 2010 to see if they could differentiate between fat-free and “real” Fig Newtons, fat-free and original popcorn and fat-free and regular cheese. He found that 77 percent of his taste-testers could tell the difference between real popcorn and fat-free popcorn. Forty-one percent of his subjects were able to correctly identify the fat-free cheese and 32 percent could differentiate between the fat-free Fig Newtons and the real ones.
Impact of Chemicals
A taste test performed at the University of Missouri under more controlled circumstances in 1999 and reported at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, showed that the number of chemical compounds contained in a product can affect the taste difference between fat-free and original foods. The University of Missouri test focused on chocolate ice cream, which has a more complex chemical formula than vanilla. While in previous tests, tasters were able to tell the difference between fat free and regular vanilla ice creams, the University of Missouri’s random sampling of students and staff decided that there was no significant difference between fat-free chocolate ice cream and the real deal.
Fat-free products not only differ in taste from real products, but using them can have other implications, as well. Shield points out that fat-free cheeses do not melt well if you use them in a recipe. Skim milk tends to be thinner than milk with a full fat content, which can also have ramifications in cooking.
Unless you are on a very rigid low-fat diet, consider making the call between fat-free and regular foods on an individual basis, Shield suggests. If taste really counts, such as with a snack tray of crackers and cheese, use the real thing. Defer to fat-free products when you can camouflage the taste with other ingredients.