NEWSWEEK Updated: 7:39 PM ET Feb 15, 2008
Consider the Oreo: two chocolate discs, a creamy filling, and a tradition going back to 1912. For as long as cookie sales have been tracked, Oreos have been the industry front runner, occasionally jockeying for first place with Chips Ahoy! or Fig Newtons, but always the sentimental favorite.
Until this year. When the cookie and-cracker best-seller list for 1994 is tabulated, last year's number six will have flown straight up into first place, with Oreos in a dismal fourth. America's new passion is SnackWell's. Introduced by Nabisco only two years ago, SnackWell's is a line of fat-free and low-fat snacks best known for the Devil's Food Cookie Cake, a morsel of cake and marshmallow wrapped in a shiny chocolate coat.
There are many differences between an Oreo and a Devil's Food Cookie Cake, but none so important as what's printed on the back of the SnackWell's box under "Nutrition Facts": "Total Fat 0 g." Zero grams of fat!
Never mind that an Oreo has a skimpy 2.3 grams of fat per cookie and approximately the same number of calories as a Devil's Food. Zero means none, and that means a lot.
America is in the grip of a fat fanaticism, obsessed with the furtive grams of fat that lurk in our food plotting hostile takeovers of our health and our waistlines. Fat is the leading nutritional preoccupation of grocery shoppers-60 percent of them, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association; cholesterol worries only 21 percent and calories a measly 7 percent.
Fat propelled "In the Kitchen with Rosie" into the bookselling hall of fame: published only six months ago, the low-fat cookbook by Rosie Daley, Oprah's personal chef, has more than 5 million copies in print and is widely acknowledged to be the fastest-selling book in history. Fat brought the 10 largest movietheater chains to their knees last May, when the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest released a study showing that a medium tub of movie popcorn, popped in coconut oil but without the fake butter, has 31 grams of saturated fat-the kind that clogs your arteries. That's as much as three Big Macs. Moviegoers gagged, and sales sagged.
"Nine out of 10 of the chains have abandoned coconut oil," says Art Silverman of CSPI; they've switched to less-saturated vegetable oils. "The 10th has added air-popped popcorn."
Fat is why students at American University in Washington, D.C., are monitoring the nutrients in their food using a touch-screen computer in the cafeteria; why restaurants from Taco Bell to "21" have introduced nutritionally correct menu items; why Patty LaNoue Stearns, food writer at the Detroit Free Press, found her phone ringing off the hook one day recently. "There was a fat-free pizza I had written about," says Stearns. "I must have gotten a hundred calls about that pizza."
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