What does low fat, light mean on a food label?

In an age where confusing food labels are enough to drive consumers crazy, they are still an important part of the food choices we make. That, and the fact they are a huge selling feature for manufacturers.

A plain black and white label pasted over a tub of ice cream will not sell nearly as many (or as fast) as a tub of ice cream with a fancy color-filled label with a photo and description. Add the words “light” or “fat reduced” and sales increase even further. Whether we realize it or not, labels play a huge part in our buying choices.

That said, labels that claim the product to be “light” also catch our attention, but not all “light” labels are created equally, nor are they always labeled for the same reason. Many consumers see the word “light” and instantly relate it to being healthier, assuming it is reduced in salt, fat or sugar, but that is not always the case.

Some “light” labeled foods are actually referring to the taste or color of the product, for example, light brown sugar and other products such as light beer.

In order for a food to be able to claim “light” as in a salt, sugar or fat reduction (calories), the product must be 50 percent “less” than the original product. The term “light” does not always mean a reduction in fat, but can also be a reduction in sugar and/or salt.

One of the biggest challenges with “light” food choices are that people tend to consume more of them. A study published in ResearchGate shows that low-fat nutrition labels increase food intake by increasing perceptions of the appropriate serving size and by decreasing consumption guilt.

In one of the most popular studies conducted, university students participating in an open house were led into a room with two large bowls of M&Ms. One bowl was labeled New Colors of Regular M&Ms and the other, New ‘Low-Fat’ M&Ms, of which no such product exists.

During the hours of the open house, the students consumed 28.4 percent more “low fat” M&Ms.

Over the years, numerous studies have shown that when given the choice, people who choose reduced fat or “light” foods eat more, which in the end means they consumed more calories than they would of had they simply eaten the regular food version.