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Light products: friend or foe?

During the past few decades, an increase of “light” products has been observed. The consumer is often put in a dilemma, when coming across them at the grocery store, as to whether they are beneficial to his/her overall health, body weight or simply about the difference in taste. The big question, however, should be whether they are truly as innocent as they claim or if there is a hidden hazard to our health, and how the frequency of consumption might affect us.

Let’s begin by explaining that there are more than one category of light products. The term may refer to a product’s energy content (calories), as well as fat, sugar, salt or alcohol. In order for a food product to be characterized as light compared to the corresponding conventional one, it must contain at least 30% fewer calories or 50% lower amount of a specific ingredient (e.g., sugar). The making of these was aiming to decrease the prevalence of obesity, as well as a variety of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes mellitus, that are associated with “low quality” eating habits. Surprisingly, it has been shown that their increased availability in the market goes hand in hand with an increase in the rates of obesity, a result which was not expected, however it can be explained. When one sees the word “light” on a food label, automatically thinks that consuming greater quantities will not affect their weight, or in many cases, will even help them lose weight, often allowing themselves to indulge in other “guilty pleasures”, since, for example, their breakfast was “light”. It is clear now that we should not consider the term “light” equal to “innocent” or “safe for unlimited consumption”. Surely, when the characterization refers to a product’s calories, it is preferred to choose the “light” version than the conventional in order to better regulate one’s weight, while consuming moderate amounts of goods within the rest of the day’s meals.

If you look closely at the different categories of those products, you might be able to point out some traps. Products with lower fat content may or may not have fewer calories. Since removing some of a food’s fat leads to a difference in its taste, and consequently difference in the consumer’s satisfaction, in many cases other ingredients, mostly sugar, are added, thus ending up to a very small or no difference in the caloric content. Additionally, it is likely that the final, processed product will have reduced quantities of certain vitamins and trace elements. Similarly, low sugar products might have a higher, mainly saturated, fat content, in order to remain palatable. The good thing about this category, however, is that when they are not fortified with fat, they contain the so-called non-caloric sweeteners (stevia, aspartame etc.), which achieve the same level of sweetness with a much smaller amount, hence their name. Products with a lower salt content are more likely to contain other ingredients that aim to improve both taste and better preservation, such as the so-called Es. It is worth mentioning that regulations on food additives, such as Es, are very strict and frequently re-evaluated to ensure consumers’ information and protection of health. Finally, when referring to products that are "light" in alcohol we must not forget that their content is not zero, therefore they should be treated as normal alcoholic beverages in terms of the effect they have on the body (e.g., in driving ability).

We can safely conclude that “light” is not necessarily equal to innocent. Reading the food label, however, and comparing to the corresponding conventional ones is the key for the consumer to turn light products into a valuable ally, in terms of good health and weight management.

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