Does Low Fat Mean the Same Thing as Reduced Fat?

Reduced Fat Milk
Is Reduced Fat Milk the Same as Low Fat Milk?. Richard Levine / Corbis News / Getty Images

Food labels can be confusing but the low fat and reduced fat claims are not the same thing. They have specific meanings as guided by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Low Fat

Low fat means a product contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving, and 30 percent or less of the total calories per serving are from fat. When looking at a main dish or meal, there can only be 3 grams or less of fat per 100 grams. If a product normally has a very small serving size, there can be no more than 3 grams of fat per 50 grams of that item.

The low fat designation is very helpful if you are being mindful of your total fat intake and helps you to choose items that are not overloaded with fat, leaving out protein and carbohydrates.

If you want to find products even lower in fat, look for the fat-free designation. To be labeled as fat-free, a product must have 0.5 grams of fat or less per serving. It must not have a fat-based ingredient like oil.

Note that low fat does not necessarily mean a product is low in saturated fat. To be designated as low in saturated fat, it must have less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving and no more than 15 percent of calories from saturated fat.

Reduced Fat

Reduced fat, on the other hand, refers to a product's claim to contain at least 25 percent less fat than the original version. So the "reduced" is referring to the amount of fat that has been removed from the original product.

Take a package of reduced-fat muffins, for example. If the original fat content per muffin was 20 grams, and the fat has been reduced to 15 grams, the fat content has decreased by 25 percent and is therefore considered "reduced fat."

However, 15 grams of fat is still five times higher than the 3 grams per serving that officially qualifies as low fat. So clearly reduced fat does not mean that the food is low fat.

What Is Healthy?

Labeling requirements are undergoing revision, but guidelines say that in order to claim a food is "healthy" it must be low fat, low saturated fat, and meet other requirements for sodium at 480 milligrams or less per serving, cholesterol of 60 milligrams or less per serving, and provide 10 percent of Daily Value for beneficial nutrients.

Proposed changes will eliminate the requirement that a food be low fat to be designated as healthy. One reason for this change is that it is now believed that the type of fat in the food is of greater importance for health than the total amount. Limiting saturated fat and eliminating trans fat are the goals of current nutrition guidelines. While fat is more calorie-dense than carbohydrates and protein, appropriate amounts of beneficial fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados are part of a healthy diet.