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Is low-fat milk better than reduced fat milk?

Americans love low-calorie foods, but they don’t always buy ones with the lowest fat content. “Today” show food editor Phil Lempert explains why.

We love to think that we’re dieting. And we love to buy foods that promise us less fat. But we don’t love all reduced fat products equally. Diet frozen desserts are a perfect example of our fickleness. Sales of these treats, including ice cream sandwiches, frozen yogurt cups, and frozen fruit bars, have increased significantly in the past few years. Some, however, have had stronger sales than others.

Turns out that sales of frozen desserts that claim they contain no animal fats have had the healthiest increases over the past few years. Sales of fat-free and low-fat varieties have had robust increases. But sales of reduced-fat ones have had mediocre increases.

Yet, in the "reduced fat claims" category, ice cream sales have done quite well. That’s due, no doubt, to the fact that major brands, including Dreyer’s, Edy’s, and Häagen-Dazs, tout that they use “slow-churned” manufacturing processes to make their reduced fat ice cream. This produces a low-fat, low-calorie ice cream that has almost the identical taste of the “full fat” version. Consumers may buy these products because they taste good, not specifically because of their lower fat content.

It’s even easier to discern consumers’ capricious response to the various fat content claims when you look at sales of a product as generic as milk. In the "reduced fat claim” category, sales have been down slightly, while in the more specific "fat free" one, sales have risen a bit. But in the "low fat" category, sales have been the most robust.

One reason for these varying sales figures may be that consumers don’t understand what the claims mean. Besides, how many of these claims are for real? One of the most confusing labeling laws surrounds the word "free." The implication is that when coupled with fat, sugar, calories or sodium, free means "lack of." You would think so, but not true. According to the Food and Drug Administration, fat-free means less than 0.5 grams per serving. Confusing, right? To help you make healthier choices at the supermarket, I've compiled a primer of FDA “fat” definitions:

Cholesterol free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving.

Extra lean
Less than 5 grams of fat and less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving (100 grams).

Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams (or less) of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving (100 grams).

Lite or lightThe most flagrantly misused term of them all. Can mean one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the referenced food; or the sodium content of an already low-fat, low-calorie food has been reduced by 50 percent; or the food is lighter in color or texture (as long as there is information on the label qualifying what light means).

Low cholesterol
Twenty milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat.

Low fatLess than 3 grams of fat per serving.

Low saturated fat
One gram or less of fat per serving and not more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids.

Reduced calorie
At least 25 percent fewer calories per serving than the referenced food.

Reduced (or less) cholesterol
At least 25 percent less cholesterol per serving than the food it is being compared to, and 2 grams or less saturated fat.

Reduced (or less) fat At least 25 percent less fat per serving than the food that it is being compared to.

Remember, most claims fall into these categories: free, low, reduced or light. The nutritional labels are there to help us — and they do. But we can't blindly rely on on-pack claims. We have a responsibility to read that ingredient listing and have a basic understanding of these terms.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .