Cholesterol. Sugar. Carbs. Fat. As diet-trend demons come and go, grocery store shelves fill with products catering to every type of restriction. But as any lifelong snacker knows, most of these low-sugar/carb/fat options can't hold a candle to the real thing when it comes to taste. Or can they? Scientists writing in the Journal of Dairy Science say fat may be less important to ice cream's deliciousness than we thought.

Food researchers at Penn State brought 292 ice cream fans into their Sensory Evaluation Center and served each person several small, identical, unlabeled bowls of vanilla ice cream made with a range of fat levels: 6 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent, or 14 percent. The participants were asked to taste and compare the samples.

The researchers had two questions: Could participants tell the difference between varying fat levels? And if so, did they care?

The answer to the first question is, "It depends." Taste-testers' tongues could spot the fat gap of 4 percent between dishes of 6 percent and 10 percent. But when that range moved to 8 percent and 12 percent, they no longer noticed. 

More interestingly, reducing fat levels didn't have much effect on their interest in eating that ice cream again. They were equally interested in having a bowl of ice cream that had 6 percent fat and one that had 14 percent.

It's a bit like plain and pink lemonade, co-author John Hayes said in a statement. "They can tell the difference when they taste the different lemonades, but still like them both. Differences in perception and differences in liking are not the same thing."

Co-author John Coupland notes that removing fat from ice cream doesn't necessarily make it better for you. For this study, the researchers used the common industry trick of replacing fat with a cheap, bulk-forming starch called maltodextrin.

"We don't want to give the impression that we were trying to create a healthier type of ice cream," Coupland said.