The Difference Between “Low Fat” and “Reduced Fat”

Eric October 6, 2010

The semantics of food labels sometimes irk me, primarily because they can be deceiving to those who do not know what some of the misleading words and phrases mean. We talked about what the fat-free percentage on food labels means before, and how the food companies are allowed to calculate and display that percentage. Does the cryptic nature of food labels end there? Oh no, there’s probably a blog’s worth of material when it comes to that subject.

Today, let’s focus on another “tricksy” pair of food label buzzwords (or phrases, I should say): “low fat” and “reduced fat”. Yes, an English teacher is likely to easily pick up on the differences in meaning between these two terms, but for the rest of us, I’d say they look oddly similar. The requirements to print those two phrases on the label, however, while obviously linked to the food’s fat content, are determined in very dissimilar ways.

“Reduced fat” foods are, as the phrase implies, foods with a lower fat content than their original versions. You’ve probably seen or bought “reduced fat peanut butter” or “reduced fat cheese”. The right to add those introductory words is earned if the food has at least 25% less fat per serving than the original version. Reduced-fat peanut butter, for example, typically has 12g fat per 2 Tbsp serving; the original peanut butter has 16g fat in that same amount.

The idea of putting “reduced fat” on the labels probably stemmed from a desire for food companies to receive recognition for fat reduction efforts without needing to have a technically “low fat” food. Peanut butter will always have a relatively high fat content; peanuts and other nuts are high in fat. (That doesn’t mean they are unhealthy, if eaten in moderation.)

So what’s separates “low fat” from “reduced fat”? In order for food to be considered (and labeled) low fat, the following two requirements must be met:

  • The food cannot contain more than 3g of fat per serving.
  • The food cannot derive more than 30% of its calories from fat. (Note: This is the accurate fat percentage calculation as a proportion of total calories, not weight or mass.)

So does that mean that “low fat” is better than “reduced fat”? Not always. Not even usually, I’d say. The problem with focusing solely on the “low fat” portion of the label is that you don’t take into account the total calories, carbs, sugar, and other nutritional information that can have as much of an effect your body’s health and hotness as fat. The Hot Bod Squad is much more likely to endorse you eating a couple tablespoons of reduced-fat peanut butter than a couple low-fat, high-sugar cookies, for example.

Now you can interpret these fat-related phrases and know their differences at a glance, but remember to look at more than the fat numbers when analyzing a food label. Nutrition, like exercise, has many facets, and focusing too heavily on any single aspect can blind you to the benefits (and detriments) of the other areas.

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