Any time you substitute an ingredient which varies substantially in fat, protein, and/or moisture content in a recipe, there’s a risk something will go awry. Low-fat cream cheese has a little more than half the fat of regular cream cheese, which is a big difference. As you say, for a cold dip it may not matter, if you’re OK with the difference in texture and taste. But when you start cooking with it, things change.
Cream cheese is used in pie crusts to make them tender and easy to work with. This is because of the fat content. Gluten develops in pastry when water mixes with the proteins in flour; fat protects and coats the gluten strands and keeps the pastry from becoming tough and elastic. So pastry is an instance where you would not want to use low-fat cream cheese.
Cheesecake recipes need to be adapted when using low-fat cream cheese. Higher moisture content in low-fat cream cheese means the cheesecake won’t firm up as much when baked, but the changes required vary depending on what kind of cheesecake you’re making. There are so many different kinds of cheesecake, I can’t begin to tell you how to adapt a recipe. But there are tons of recipes for low-fat cheesecake online, so you can find one that suits your needs easily enough.
Where else would you use cream cheese heated? It’s a pretty standard ingredient in appetizers like hot artichoke dip or any variation thereof – crab, clam, spinach, etc. It’s sometimes used for making easy sauces. Here again, when heated, the stabilizers and additives that make low-fat cream cheese approximate the full-fat variety will break down and leave you with less than desirable results.
Comparing the labels of Kraft’s Philadelphia brand regular and low-fat cream cheese reveals that for the fat that’s removed there are two additional stabilizers in the low-fat version, xanthan gum and guar gum. I’ve been unable to determine whether cream cheese is a standard of identity food, so I don’t know if there are other ingredients they’re not required to reveal. I’ve seen mention of artificial flavors used in low-fat cream cheese, but there’s no mention of them on the label.
At any rate, in general I question the use of low-fat versions of any food, not just cream cheese. Usually the fat content is lower, but the overall calorie count isn’t. Something must replace the flavor of fat, and it’s usually sugar and/or salt and natural or artificial flavorings. Is that a good trade-off? I don’t think so. I’d rather eat real food with its natural complement of fat, and either eat less or eat it less often. The psychology of eating low-fat is tricky, too – it makes you feel that because the substitute is somehow “healthier,” you can consume more of it. Not so – in fact, you may end up actually consuming more calories than intended. I recommend eating real food with no additives, enjoying it fully, and making adjustments elsewhere. Your figure and your health will thank you.
(Photo: National Cancer Institute)