Fake Foods: A Nutritional Update

In some science fiction stories, people take food pills instead of eating a real meal. Although Americans haven't come to that, more and more fake foods are now available to replace their real counterparts. Is this a step forward or backward in the evolution of modern nutrition?

What are fake foods?

Fake foods aren't really fake. They are just different from the foods they mimic. Examples include egg substitutes, bacon substitutes, fat-free mayonnaise and salad dressing, soy protein meat substitutes, oil-free chips and dips, fat-free cheese, fat-free cakes and pastries, nondairy whipped toppings, and butter-flavored sprinkles. Sometimes legitimate foods are manipulated to taste like other foods. Whitefish can be transformed into simulated lobster or crab, while turkey is used to simulate ham, bologna, salami, and pastrami.

A trend in fake foods is manufactured fat substitutes, many of which are still in development. First to gain FDA approval was NutraSweet's Simplesse, an all-natural protein-based product that replaces fat in foods such as frozen desserts, mayonnaise, sour cream, dips, salad dressing, and cheeses, and provides about half the calories of fat.

There are three categories of fat substitutes, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Carbohydrate-based fat substitutes, which use plant sugars in place of fat

  • Protein-based fat substitutes

  • Fat-based substitutes, which can be used in smaller quantities or which pass through the intestines without being absorbed 

Examples of fat substitutes include:

  • Oatrim, used in food manufacturing, is made from enzyme-treated oat flour.

  • Oil sprays, such as Pam, which prevent food from sticking to cooking and baking pans. These eliminate the need to use additional oil in food preparation.

  • Olestra, a fat replacement used to make low-fat and fat-free snack foods. It can cause side effects, including diarrhea, cramping, and fecal incontinence.

Advantages and disadvantages

Whether fake foods are a step in the right direction depends on how you use them. When you sacrifice nutrients by choosing fake foods over nutritious foods, you are taking a step backward. This is also true if you rationalize that a fat-free food gives you license to overeat. Fake foods have both negative and positive attributes that you should carefully consider. Portion size counts.

From a positive standpoint, fake foods offer ways to reduce fat and cholesterol in your diet if you use them to replace full-fat foods and avoid eating too many calories overall. They create a greater variety of choices for people trying to follow a healthful diet, making eating more fun and enjoyable.

On the negative side, some fake foods don't taste as good as the original. In addition, manufacturers may add sugar or salt to boost the flavor depleted when fat is removed from a product. Another consideration is that some fake foods may contain no cholesterol but have more fat and calories than the original. Finally, fake foods are often more expensive than the foods they replace.

Because these products are still fairly new to the market, long-term benefits have not yet been backed by research. Until more is known about them, nutrition experts recommend that you follow a healthy, low-fat eating plan and use these products, if desired, to give you more flexibility.

Guidelines for using fake foods

Fake foods can be enjoyed, but consume them intelligently. Consider these guidelines:

Don't replace healthy, nutritious foods with fake foods. Keep your diet balanced by eating a variety of foods to obtain all the nutrients your body needs. Daily dietary guidelines base recommendations for daily calories on a person's age, gender, and activity level. They call for at least six ounce-equivalents of grains a day (half of which should be whole grains), at least 2½ cups of vegetables, 1½ to 2½ cups of fruit, five to seven ounce-equivalents of meat or meat alternatives, and two to three servings of skim or low-fat dairy products. Your diet should contain no more than 20 to 35 percent calories from fat.

Stick to single servings of fat-free foods. Products labeled fat-free can still contain up to a half-gram of fat per serving. So when you eat more than one serving, your fat intake starts to climb.

Read all the nutrients listed on a product label, not just the fat content. Some fake foods may contain more calories and sodium than the foods they imitate.

Watch for hidden fat and cholesterol in some fake foods. Nondairy toppings, for example, may contain as much or more saturated fat than whipping cream.