5/5 experts say no.
“Hell no!” says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, followed by: “What is it?” Those were sentiments echoed by all of our experts in this week’s burning food question.
Lest you, too, are left scratching your head, here’s the lowdown. Half-and-half math is simple: whole milk plus cream. The fat-free version requires some more advanced calculations, however. “It typically replaces the milk fat with corn syrup and thickeners,” says Julia Zumpano, an RD at Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute. (Kristi King, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, agrees that the real thing is better than additives.) The ingredient list on a typical brand of fat-free half and half contains fat-free milk, corn syrup, carrageenan, cream, artificial color, disodium phosphate, guar gum and vitamin A palmitate. It has half the calories (20) as regular half-and-half and about twice the sodium (20-30 mg), plus sugar (1-2 grams).
“Fat-free half-and-half strikes me as an absolutely unnecessary product,” says Mario Kratz, PhD, a dairy researcher and nutrition scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It exists, of course, because people want the rich texture and flavor and calcium benefits without the fat or calories. But that dairy phobia is misguided, according to Kratz’s recent review on dairy. “Our work shows that consuming dairy foods in their full-fat form (rather than nonfat or low-fat) is associated with lower weight gain, a lower risk of obesity, and possibly even lower risks for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” he says.
MORE Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat
These findings are largely drawn from observational studies, so they can’t establish cause in the way that a randomized controlled trial can, Kratz cautions. Nor do the findings imply that chugging a carton of regular half-and-half is a good idea—just that drinking the fat-free version might be a worse one.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as fat-free half-and-half. Sounds awful,” says Andrew Weil, MD, founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Weil steers people away from nonfat dairy products (though he cops to dipping into fat-free sour cream every once in a while) because taking the fat out of dairy, he says, might have hormonal effects. “Milk contains natural sex hormones,” he says. “The centrifugation process for preparing nonfat milk and products made from it causes differential concentration of male and female hormones in the separated watery and fatty components.” Some studies link skim milk to increased risk of type-1 diabetes, male acne and infertility in women, he says.
Without the fat, half and half is a lot like the skim milk that makes it up—it just isn’t quite whole.
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