The latest chapter in the confusion of "lite" labeling is an uncompleted study, an aborted mission. When the consumer organization Public Voice for Food & Health Policy tried to examine the marketplace of low fat foods, it turned up more questions than answers and more inadequacies on food labels than solid information. The group abandoned the project. It too, was confused.

Probably the only conclusion Public Voice came to, says director of communications Pat Kelly, is that it's virtually impossible to pursue a low fat diet by using "lite" food labels. "There's confusion on every aisle," Kelly said.

But the real conclusion from the group's preliminary research may be that there's a study up for grabs. The fact that there is no government-regulated definition for the term "lite" has created a supermarket filled with foods apparently low in something, although often that "something" is left up to the best guess of the consumer.

Initially, Public Voice started its research by asking, "Is it more expensive to eat a low fat diet?" In other words, are we paying more for the glitzy new labels and advertising? From there, the study turned into a comparison of the analogues, comparing the prices of products such as Borden's American cheese to its "Lite-Line" counterpart.

The group found no apparent trend from its cursory research. In a one-day survey of three area supermarkets, less fat cost more in products such as mayonnaise and cream cheese, less fat cost less in products like cottage cheese and frankfurters and less fat cost the same in products like Bonbel cheese.

Then the study veered away from the price aspect, and into determining which "lite" foods were in fact lower in fat, as opposed to sugar, sodium or other ingredients. Kelly channeled product labels into three categories:

(1) Those that clearly define whether the product is low in fat and how they compare to the analogue; for example, Philadelphia Light Cream Cheese, which says on the label, "half the fat" and " 1/3 fewer calories." Because the regular Philadelphia Cream Cheese has nutritional labeling, a fat and calorie comparison can be made, although such labeling is required by law only on products that make a nutritional claim such as "lite."

(2) Those that give enough information to allow an educated guess; perhaps a salad dressing called "lite." Kelly said since salad dressing is generally an oil-based product, her guess would be that the "lite" most likely refers to fat content.

(3) Those that provide no apparent information from which to judge. The label on Frito-Lay Frito Lights says a serving contains 10 grams of fat. Regular Frito-Lays also contain 10 grams of fat, and the same amount of calories per serving. (The products are nearly identical. According to Frito-Lay spokesman Elliot Bloom, the "light" does not refer to reductions in any ingredients. Instead, said Bloom, Frito-Lay Frito Lights are "light" because they are thinner -- not than regular Fritos -- but than King Size Fritos.)

As a result of all the discrepancies with various products, according to Ellen Haas, director of Public Voice, shoppers may be eating more fat than they realize, and the confusion creates a purchasing barrier to those looking for low fat products. In addition, said Kelly, lack of nutrition information about the unreduced counterparts to "lite" products' makes comparisons difficult. Depending on the difference in fat content between a regular product and its "lite" counterpart, said Kelly, she might choose to buy the regular and use less of it.

What are some cautions that can be drawn from an uncompleted study? Kelly outlined a few: Beware of the confusion -- don't naturally assume that a low fat diet can be achieved from any of these products. Read the fine print on a label and look for any available information beyond the word "lite." And beware of products that are calculated lower in calories or fat only because their serving size is smaller.

In the meantime, for Public Voice, the study redirected its thinking. Instead of trying to decipher a jumbled marketplace, the group is considering options for the label that would address some of the problems uncovered.

Addendum: As if "lite" products aren't hard enough to define, at a workshop at a National Food Processors Association conference last week, industry participants were discussing recommendations that the government relax labeling restrictions on words like "healthful" and "good for you."