Labels: Decoding Low Fat vs. Reduced Fat vs. Fat Free

Foods are often labeled “low fat,” “reduced fat,” “fat free,” etc. What do these terms mean?

If you think the labels are tough to decode, try reading the extensively foot-noted, jargon-heavy, microscopically printed U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. Yes, those brightly colored starbursts on food products are, indeed, regulated. Basically, there are three categories of descriptors: those indicating the absence of fat or calories, those indicating small amounts, and those indicating comparatively less than the regular version of that food (what the FDA calls the “reference food”). Descriptors don’t necessarily mean precisely what you’d think. Our chart summarizes these terms, but don’t look for “light” (or “lite”)—its definition can change, depending on the percentage of calories from fat in the original product, whether the food is considered a meal, and several other complicating factors.


  • ZERO: Less than 5 calories per serving
  • LOW: 40 calories or fewer per serving
  • REDUCED: 25 percent fewer calories than reference food



  • FREE: Less than 0.5 gram fat per serving
  • LOW: 3 grams of fat or fewer per serving
  • REDUCED: 25 percent less fat than reference food


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