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In trying to eat healthy, I have started to buy "fat-free" or "light" versions of the real thing, whatever it may be. But I started to wonder: how do they get it to be fat free? Is it chock-full of chemicals that will slowly fester in my body until it explodes? Is fat-free food really safe to eat? --Cautious Health Nut, Madison, Wisconsin

Don't be such a stiff. Being chock-full of chemicals has resulted in some of the most entertaining moments of my life. Granted, the stuff in SnackWells doesn't work on the same pharmacological principle. There's no single method of making a food fat free, but generally what you try to do is substitute some ingredient (e.g., milk and egg protein, enzyme-treated oat bran, or that old favorite, seaweed extract) that approximates the bulk and "mouth feel" of fat without fat's calories.

Usually these ingredients are more or less natural and presumably harmless, the only drawback being that some of them taste like axle grease. To compensate, some food manufacturers dump in a lot of sugar, with the result that the finished product often contains nearly as many calories as the fatty food it was meant to replace. (This seems to be particularly true of cookies.) The stuff does, however, qualify for a big zero (or at least some impressively small number) on the "fat grams" line in the nutrition box on the back of the package, and in the minds of weight watchers with tunnel vision, that's often enough.

You have to give food makers credit for ingenuity. NutraSweet's Simplesse, for example, consists of whey protein (a cheese-making by-product) that's been fashioned into microscopic spheres that roll around the tongue like little ball bearings, simulating the smooth, creamy feel of real fat. Only problem is that, tastewise, Simplesse-based ice cream approximates the real thing about as well as Dustin Hoffman approximated a woman in Tootsie. A truly convincing fake fat has yet to make it to market.

Food scientists haven't given up though. There's no question some fat-free products ain't bad, and a lotta folks figure that ain't good. Many dieticians fear that weight watchers will consume fat-free products so obsessively that they won't eat a balanced diet--neglecting their daily fiber quota, for example. Equally worrisome, people may figure eating a fat-free food is an excuse to heavy up on some other artery clogger, the rationale for such breakfasts of champions as Ho-Hos and diet Coke.

On the other hand, if you apply a modicum of intelligence to your eating habits--admittedly a stretch for many consumers--fat-free foods offer genuine benefits. Low-fat mayo, for example, has half the calories of the regular stuff; no-fat mayo one-eighth. Consumer Reports has calculated that if you replaced fatty foods with no-fat substitutes in a typical daily diet, you could eliminate 275 calories and reduce your calories-from-fat intake from 36 percent to 26 percent, well below the 30 percent recommended by the surgeon general. Just don't think of fat-free foods as a magic bullet that will let you eat anything you want.

I CAN'T STAND IT

As part of the widening conspiracy to undermine your columnist's moral authority, no sooner do I claim that none of Lewis Carroll's nude photographs has come to light (October 6) than the New Yorker goes ahead and prints one, in its issue of October 9. The subject is a little girl named Evelyn Hatch in a pose that, were Evelyn older or Cecil weirder, would be seductive. The picture is one of four nudes unearthed by Morton Cohen, to be published in his forthcoming Lewis Carroll: A Biography. The treatment is not shocking by the standards of, say, a Calvin Klein ad, but you can bet it never would have happened under that nice Mr. Shawn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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