Fat is fashionable now, prompting a deluge of ultra-rich dairy products billed as both healthy and delicious. But can you actually have it all? Here’s your grocery-aisle guide
AT-FREE YOGURT is disgusting, an abomination, and I am banning myself from eating it ever again,” read a recent tweet from Roxane Gay, a writer who has spent years contemplating her relationship with food. Within hours, her missive had been liked 4,633 times. It also inspired hundreds of supportive replies, including one agreeing that fat-free yogurt tasted like “chalky paste mixed with sadness.”
How times have changed. Once upon a time, Americans shunned fat, and the food industry answered their calls with fat-free versions of everything from yogurt and cookies to the oxymoronic fat-free cream. But substituting carbs and sugar for fat was no magic bullet. Today, nearly 38% of Americans are obese, up from 11% in 1990. And sugar is the new dietary devil.
Fat meanwhile, if not entirely redeemed by nutritionists, is back in fashion. Spurred by the media—a 2016 Time Magazine cover urged readers to “Eat Butter”—and a rash of “good-fat” cookbooks, many Americans now trumpet their embrace of fat, in particular “good” fats found in grass-fed dairy, coconut, olive oil and avocados.
For food manufacturers, the extreme swing of the pendulum is an opportunity. They have capitalized with a flood of new products: The dairy case, once awash in sugar-laden low-fat cartons and cups, now features full-fat, double- and triple-cream yogurts and alternative milks, smoothies, even cheeses made with high-fat nut and coconut milks. The Forager Project, a plant-based food company in California, is even prominently advertising fat on the labels of its new line of smoothies and “fat coffee” released last month. It was, said CEO Stephen Williamson, a tough call: “People associated fat with being fat, even if that’s wrong.”
Sales are booming. Kite Hill, which makes artisanal nut-milk cheeses and yogurts, has seen compound annual revenue growth of 400% since 2015. Organic giant Stonyfield launched 12 new whole-milk products in 2017 and saw their whole-milk dollar sales grow by double digits over the last several years, while Strauss Creamery, California’s first organic dairy, watched whole-milk Greek yogurt sales jump 20% in 2017. In contrast, sales of Strauss’s non-fat and low-fat versions dipped by “low single digits” during the same period.
“Fat is back,” said Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield’s co-founder. “And that’s because taste is back.”
Maybe. But however tasty, these products are also branded as good for us, and if the excesses of the low-fat craze left me with anything, it’s skepticism of health fads. After eating my way through the crowded dairy section, I came up with a few rules by which to judge the wave of new offerings and a list of my new go-tos. (See “Creamy and Dreamy.”)
RULE N° 1
Not all fat is good.
“Eat Butter” was a great headline. But most nutritionists would agree a more apt one would be “Don’t Demonize Butter.” (You can see why Time went with the former.) Recent science suggests that foods rich in healthful, unsaturated fats—salmon, nuts, olive oil—can help protect against cardiovascular disease. But the evidence is less certain about saturated fats from dairy and coconut, which are the foundation for so many of the new dairy and alt-dairy products.
Here’s what we know: Grass-fed milk has higher levels of good-for-you Omega-3s than milk from dairy cows fed a diet of grain. Whole-fat dairy is also more satisfying than lower-fat products, which can lead one to consume fewer carbs and other calories. Coconut milk, meanwhile, has a health halo because it’s high in lauric acid, a medium-chain saturated fatty acid—the kind of fat that’s quickly metabolized—and said to have antimicrobial and other benefits. But it is important to remember that it contains a whopping 24 grams of saturated fat per half cup.
Franklin Becker, chef and author of “Good Fat Cooking,” boils it down this way: “If you’re dairy-free, choose the nut yogurt over the coconut one; it’s a healthier fat. In dairy, choose.
RULE N° 2
Even good fat should be eaten in moderation.
Whole milk, by definition, has 3.25% fat. That means you get about 4 grams of fat in a 4-ounce serving. But plant-based milks and yogurts can have much more. Kite Hill’s almond milk yogurt has 7.5 grams in a half-cup serving, while COYO coconut yogurt has a mindblowing 29 grams. You have to read the fine print to discover more balanced options such as Forager Project’s Cashewgurt, which has 4.5 grams of fat per half cup, or So Delicious Coconut yogurt with just 3 grams.
Fat, of course, does make food more satiating. But the bottom line is that fat comes with calories.
“Companies are adding fat to processed foods presumably to make them taste better and because they think they can get away with it now that the word is out that fat is OK,” said Marion Nestle , a professor of nutrition at New York University. “The problem here, as in all such matters dealing with single nutrients, is taking the fat out of its caloric context. If there is more fat in yogurt, it will have more calories. And calories, alas, count.”
RULE N° 3
If you’re choosing higher-fat, make sure you’re not getting sugar too.
The new fat-full yogurts and smoothies don’t necessarily keep sugar low. Noosa, an ultra-popular upstart that recorded $170 million in sales last year, offers a line of 21 “classic” flavors, each with between 14 grams and 17.5 grams of sugar—as much as 4½ teaspoons per half cup. Likewise, many popular nut yogurts don’t shy away from sugar. Kite Hill’s pineapple and peach yogurts had nearly 13 grams and 11 respectively per half cup.
Many companies are reducing sugar. Stonyfield, for example, slashed sugar in all its classic yogurts by at least 25% last year. Most flavors now have around 4 grams of sugar per half cup.
After all my research, the brand I was most drawn to was Siggi’s, famous for its Icelandic-style strained yogurts. Its whole-milk yogurts have a respectable 4 grams of fat (from grass-fed dairy) and just five grams of sugar in enticing flavors, like banana-cinnamon and peach-mango. Even its triple-cream offering, which is a dessert, keeps sugar low—8 grams for its raspberry flavor. I’ll admit the first bite tasted strange; we’re all accustomed to so much sugar. But before finishing my first tub, I appreciated being able to taste the real flavor and tang of yogurt itself.
Enjoy it while you can. You never know when fat will go out of fashion.
Source: Wall Street Journal – Author: Jane Black