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Look beyond labels on fat and calorie claims

Fat is likely to continue as one of the overriding nutrition concerns for 1993, but confusion still reigns in the supermarket, even for the most sophisticated shopper.

Despite a labeling overhaul mandated by the Food and Drug Administration that will take effect over the next 17 months, misunderstandings will surely persist over which foods are the best choices for people watching fat and counting calories. Here are a few of the most common fallacies.

Myth: "Mini" foods, like mini-cookies, muffins and crackers, are a good way to control fat intake.

Fact: Though the new crop of mini foods seem like fat savers, they often provide more fat per ounce than their full-size counterparts.

Myth: Fat-free foods contain no fat at all.

Fact: Foods labeled fat-free are not always free of fat. Under current labeling regulations, a food that provides less than half a gram of fat per serving can be called fat-free. Unusually small serving sizes sometimes enable products to meet the fat-free definition. The new labeling rules will codify serving sizes for some, but not all, foods.

Myth: Peanut butter marketed as a lighter alternative to the regular spread is low in fat.

Fact: The new lighter varieties are lower only in sodium and sugar, NOT fat. Both regular and lighter spreads provide about 16 grams of fat in a two-tablespoon serving.

Myth: Margarine provides less fat and fewer calories than butter.

Fact: In stick form, margarine provides the same 100 calories and 11 grams of fat as a tablespoon of pure butter. Some of the new vegetable-oil spreads and butter-and-margarine blends provide less, but even they can provide as much as 90 calories and 10 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Tub margarines are whipped and provide about 70 calories a tablespoon because air is incorporated into the mixture. Diet margarines provide about 50 calories a tablespoon.

Myth: Ground turkey is a low-fat alternative to ground beef.

Fact: Not all ground turkey is low in fat. Most brands have dark meat and skin ground into the mix, which raises the fat content. In fact, some provide as much fat as ground beef. The only truly low-fat ground turkey products are those that contain nothing but turkey breast.

Myth: 2 percent milk is low in fat.

Fact: It's hard to shake the perception that 2 percent milk is low in fat, probably because it clearly says low-fat milk on the label. The truth is that the only milks that are low in fat are 1 percent milk and skim milk.

When the label says 2 percent, it's referring to the amount of milk fat by weight, not by calories. Milk that contains 2 percent of its weight as milk fat actually provides 45 percent of its calories as fat. And 1 percent milk provides 27 percent of its calories as fat. Skim provides none of its calories as fat. By contrast, whole milk contains about 3 percent of its weight as milk fat and derives about 50 percent of its calories from fat.

Myth: Foods that have replaced fat with fat substitutes provide far fewer calories than the full-fat versions.

Fact: Products that replace all or most of the fat they contain with fat substitutes are not always as low in calories as you might expect. Fat substitutes, usually made of carbohydrates, also contain calories. In products made with a fat substitute, calorie savings run 20 to 30 percent.

Myth: Cholesterol-free mayonnaise is low in fat.

Fact: Cholesterol-free mayonnaise is not always lower in fat than regular mayonnaise. Though the cholesterol from egg yolks has been removed, the total fat content remains the same, about 11 grams a tablespoon. Mayonnaise products labeled "imitation," "reduced calorie" or "fat free" are lower in fat.

Myth: Light and special-blend oils are lower in fat and calories than regular oils.

Fact: Light cooking oils and new special blends are no lower in calories than their regular counterparts, though they may have subtle differences in flavor _ a "lighter" taste of olive oil, for example. All cooking oils provide 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.

Myth: Carob candy is lower in fat than chocolate.

Fact: Carob candy bars are usually no lower in fat than milk chocolate bars. Though carob powder is virtually fat-free, a lot of fat and sugar is added to achieve the taste and texture of milk chocolate. The choice then becomes a high-fat carob bar or a high-fat milk chocolate bar.

Myth: Cutting out cholesterol by choosing cholesterol-free foods is the most effective way to lower your blood cholesterol.

Fact: Saturated fats found in varying amounts in many foods, from fatty meats and whole milk to peanuts and potato chips have a much more powerful effect on blood cholesterol than any cholesterol you might consume.

Myth: Lean ground beef is low in fat.

Fact: Ground beef labeled lean is usually anything but. According to Agriculture Department guidelines, lean ground beef can provide an eye-popping 75 percent of its calories from fat. Truly lean ground beef is labeled "95 percent lean" but is not always easy to find.

Denise Webb, a freelance writer, is a registered dietician.