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What Is a Low-Fat Spread?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Low-fat spread is a smooth, spreadable condiment that is intended to mimic the flavor and consistency of butter or margarine, but has fewer fat grams. It is generally made primarily from a mixture of water and oil, to which various flavorings, preservatives, and colorings are added. Many people choose a low-fat spread because it allows them to enjoy a butter-like taste without taking in a large amount of fat. Detractors of these spreads argue that they often contain harmful trans fats, and that their flavor and texture are inferior to those of real butter.

In most cases, the primary ingredients in low-fat spread are water and some type of oil, such as sunflower oil, olive oil, or canola oil. Due to their natural chemical properties, oil and water normally separate shortly after they have been mixed together. Consequently, low-fat spreads typically also contain an emulsifier, or a compound that helps keep these ingredients uniformly combined. Other ingredients commonly found in low-fat spread include thickening agents, colorings, flavorings, and preservatives.

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Many people choose low-fat spread over butter or margarine because it tastes and “performs” similar to these other products, but contains less fat than they do. Like butter and margarine, a spread can be lathered on toast and pancakes, deposited on top of a mound of mashed potatoes, used for sautéing and frying, and so forth. Some spreads can even be substituted measure for measure for butter or margarine when preparing baked goods. Further, low-fat spreads are often less costly than butter.

The low-fat spread has many detractors, however. Many nutrition experts hasten to point out that while spreads may have fewer total fat grams than butter, they often contain more grams of the cholesterol-raising fat known as trans fat. Those who wish to select a low-fat spread that does not contain high levels of trans fat should scan a product’s ingredient list prior to purchase, avoiding those spreads that list partially hydrogenated oils among their ingredients.

Some argue that the long list of additives, many of them artificial, contained in a large proportion of low-fat spreads makes them a poor choice from a nutritional standpoint. Others simply find that the taste and consistency of a low-fat spread does not match that of butter. On a similar note, due to its high water content, when used in baking, a spread often results in a product with a less satisfying texture than one made with butter.

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