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‘Light’ ain’t right – there’s too much confusion about calories

Magnifying glass looking at calorie label

January… a time to clear the excesses of Christmas and eat more healthily. But do we know how to adopt a lower-fat diet? Not according to recent research which suggests we’re confused about calories.

If you’re an avid label-reader you probably know a fair bit about what’s in your food. However, recent research by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has revealed that millions of us are unaware of the actual calorie count of everyday foods.

This means we might be happily eating too much of what we shouldn’t: and perhaps not eating as much as of what we should.

Do calories really matter?

A calorie is a unit of energy, which our bodies need to live. Every food has an energy density measure, but high energy-dense – or high calorie-dense – foods give us more energy. And if we eat more energy than we use up, we put on weight.

I’ve clearly eaten more than I’ve used over Christmas. After the roast turkey dinner blow-out I’m trying to get more fruit and veg back into my diet. But I’m also lazy and don’t like to read every square millimetre of packaging before buying, as it just prolongs torturous supermarket trips.

One thing I learnt from the WCRF research was that hummus isn’t as healthy as I thought it was (and 78% of people thought the same as me). Regular hummus is high in fat – and one gram of fat provides seven calories – so consequently hummus will be high in calories.

‘Low fat’ versus ‘light’

Only 29% of people surveyed knew ‘light’ mayonnaise contained lots of calories (more ammunition for Patrick’s anti-mayo campaign perhaps?). Which? campaigned to ensure clear criteria for these claims and has had a lot of success.

While the words ‘low fat’ can only be put on foods with 3% fat or less, ‘light’ products only need to be 30% lower in fat than the regular product. So if the original is very high in fat, the lighter version is likely to still be quite high. But using words such a ‘light’ can be confusing, implying they might be healthy.

Clearly, there’s a difference between eating too much hummus and too much mayo. As WCRF points out: ‘Some foods that are high in calories, like nuts and seeds, contain good fats and beneficial nutrients and, in small amounts, are an important part of a healthy diet’. So what can be done to help people understand what’s in the food they’re eating?

We’ve been asking for front-of-pack traffic light labelling for many years, and WCRF’s research yet again highlights the need for this. Having traffic light labels on the front of all products could help us all make better decisions about the foods we eat.

So what are your New Year food resolutions? Do you automatically reach for the ‘light’ option in the belief that it’s low in fat, or do you scrutinise the small print before you buy?


What’s wrong with the term “light” or “lighter” , as you say it has 30% less calories than the “normal” version.

You could also argue that milk is perceived as being “high fat” because there are semi and fully skimmed versions available but at 4% fat it is not !

I do wonder whether all these labelling schemes actually have any effect on those whose “unhealthy” food intake is causing real problems.

Thanks for raising this issue, Jo. We need simple, clear information.

Fast food outlets come in for a lot of criticism but few seem to notice that most sandwiches contain a lot of fat in the form of mayonnaise or other fatty dressing. We all need to eat some fat but I would rather have mine in fish, cheese, chocolate or something else I enjoy eating.

Andy says:
5 January 2012

It not so much that calories matter. There are quite a lot of calories in a bowl of porridge but its a great option for breakfast from a health perspective. I religiously now examine saturated fat and salt content but would love a traffic light system so I wouldnt waste time examining the labels of foods with big red blobs on them.

Personally I’d like to see woolly language like ‘light’ outlawed because they are misleading in terms of the food constituents

StevieB says:
29 February 2012

The traffic light method is good for me, as reading small print is tough without glasses these days. Easy to read labels allows a more informed choice and the easier the better for me.

Healthy food is not the only consideration for me, I also believe in short but regular exercise too. Having a sitting office job does not help me much. So an excuse to get up and walk throughout the day is a good idea and short and brisk exercise is good for me too ~ and every little, every day helps.

sharka says:
19 May 2012

All value added food needs traffic lights, not only the coloured dots but the word as well so that colour blind people find it easier. Salt in potato crisps and other food is excessive and the “per 100 grammes” is sometimes not helpful.

oldstick says:
20 September 2012

I was disappointed there was no mention of hydrogenated oils in the low-fats feature in Which? magazine. I thought these dangerous subtances had been removed from the ingredients in most products. However a recent internet search suggested “Atora Light” suet and “Elmlea” lower fat cream contain significant amounts of hydogenated oil. Is this correct or did I stumble across formulations used in non UK markets?

It is partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils that are the problem because trans-fats are not natural substances and we are recommended to eat no more than small amounts of them. Interestingly, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils are just saturated fats, which occur naturally and our bodies can cope with, though we are advised to limit our daily intake.

It is disappointing that Atora does not either admit to their product containing partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil or declare that this is not present in the ingredients.

You are right about different products being sold in different markets and I would not trust anyone but the manufacturer to provide accurate and up-to-date information.

Are low-fat foods really much better for you? That is the question. But not everyone is looking for something “healthier”. In my case I am unworried about calories, but attempt to stick to a low fat diet when I can – too much rich food can upset my gall bladder and, as I don’t want an op, my solution is to eat less fat.

Those who suffer from hiatus hernia and acid refux are recommended to avoid oily food too.

oldstick says:
21 September 2012

Thanks for info “Wavechange”. I never realised the significance of the partially bit. Atora didn’t reply to an email, so I took that as confirmation of others who said there is part hydrog. oil in it. I found the ingredients in Elmlea on the Ocado website!

In the absence of manufacturer’s information you are right to assume the worst, oldstick.

Elmlea is manufactured by Unilever and I cannot find any information on their website. I have a slight aversion to eating anything made by a washing powder manufacturer. 🙂