Fats give energy to our body. A walk down the grocery store will confirm our obsession with low-fat foods, while there are others who believe that ever since fat was demonized people have started eating more sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed foods instead. So does fat still remain the enemy or is now a friend? Opinions vary wildly.
Take Finland for instance, where growing numbers of people are embracing full-fat products. While, India is desperately trying to wean consumers off the much-loved spicy, rich dishes drenched in ghee, the ubiquitous clarified butter, to counter an obesity crisis and worrisome diabetes and cholesterol issues.
Finnish mother-of-two Johanna Amnelin claims she lost 10 kilos (22 pounds) after switching to whole milk and real butter. She said, "At first I just switched from skimmed to whole milk and noticed that I began to lose weight. Whenever I drink even semi-skimmed milk, I get a terrible craving for junk food and tidbits such as chocolate or crisps. The low-fat products just won't stave off my hunger for very long."
Not only Amnelin, but many Finns are turning their backs on processed food in favor of full-fat products because they believe them to be more authentic and less processed, though experts are dismayed by that erroneous image. To doctors' frustrations, butter and cheese consumption has soared in the country in recent years.
Marjaana Lahti-Koski, the head of the Finnish Heart Association and member of the National Nutrition Council, said, "This is a disadvantageous trend. Until 2007 the population's cholesterol levels were dropping but in 2012 the situation was getting worse again, coinciding with the rise in use of saturated fats. The council still recommends low-fat or fat-free dairy products as well as sources of unsaturated fats such as vegetable oils, margarines or nuts."
But, Kari Salminen, a retired food science professor who used to head up the research department at Finland's largest dairy producer, said, "I was neck-deep involved in developing low-fat products when there was high market demand for them, but I don't see any health benefits to them and I don't use low-fat products myself."
On the other hand, as India faces a growing obesity problem, awareness is growing of the importance of lower-fat foods. Anoop Misra, chairman of the National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation, said, "This is the most important crisis facing India today."
Scientists have just developed a low-fat version of ghee that cuts cholesterol content by 85%, in the hope the leaner version will catch on with health conscious consumers. India's food standards authority last month announced that it is halving the trans-fat limit permitted in foods sold in the country to 5% per item.
But doctor Misra said, "More needed to be done to change eating habits especially among the growing millions of middle class as well as lower-income earners. The mentality is 'eat this today because you might not get it again tomorrow'. Their ancestors grew up in times of famine so this is the mentality passed on."
The progress is very slow in India, with studies showing the number of diabetics in India has risen dramatically in recent years to reach at least 50 million, while up to 50% of urban Indians suffer obesity, more than double that of 20 years ago.