Albany, N.Y. A late-night bowl of chocolate ice cream without the morning-after guilt? That's what the rich-tasting "light" version of ice cream means for Lori Blatt.
That wasn't the case a few years ago, when low-cal options left her yearning for the real thing.
"You can still taste the difference, but it doesn't matter because it's pleasurable to eat now," said Blatt, a 49-year-old resident of suburban Albany.
It wasn't so long ago that diet candies, desserts and sodas made with saccharin left a metallic, chalky aftertaste and a lingering sense of hunger.
"They were horrible. They lasted a blink. Nobody even remembers their names," said Francine Segan, a food historian and cookbook author in New York City.
Over the years, fat and sugar substitutes like aspartame (NutraSweet) have dramatically improved the taste of diet foods. Innovative processing methods, like beating air into ice cream, also have helped squeeze out the calories while preserving taste.
Blatt says Edy's Slow Churned Light chocolate ice cream - 110 calories per half-cup serving compared with 150 calories for regular - is so rich and creamy she no longer craves the full-fat kind.
With two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, the growing interest in lighter choices is no surprise. But rather than reaching for fruits and vegetables, many Americans are hungry for guilt-free versions of old favorites.
The sheer variety of lighter options - low-fat, fat-free, reduced fat, no sugar - shows how popular they've become.
According to ACNielsen, U.S. supermarket, drugstore and discount sales of products labeled low-, no- and reduced-fat reached $32.1 billion for a one-year period ending Oct. 7, up from $31.7 billion for the same time period in 2002.
Adding water to margarine or beating air into ice cream are among the safer ways of reducing calories, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
Many diet foods, however, rely on fat and sugar substitutes that have raised health concerns, he said. Olestra, the fat substitute used in Frito Lay's light potato chips, can cause cramps and diarrhea. Sugar alcohols, used in a variety of desserts and low-carb foods, including Snackwell's Sugar Free Shortbread Cookies, can have a laxative effect in high quantities.
Low-calorie alternatives also may reveal a deeper problem: Americans' inability to eat in moderation, said David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University.
"It's a kind of crutch. People could just eat less of the real thing instead of these artificially flavored substitutes," he said.
He noted that when people know they're eating lower-calorie foods, they tend to compensate by eating more.
Still, the promise of sinful foods with fewer calories is tempting.
Sales of Kraft's reduced-calorie alternatives are growing faster than their original counterparts, said Elisabeth Lenner, spokeswoman for Kraft Foods Inc. Reduced-calorie versions of Cool Whip, for example, now make up 40 percent of the brand's sales.
The key is making sure lighter versions still taste good. To do that, Kraft's line of South Beach Diet foods uses reduced-fat cheeses and wheat crusts.
"If you only focus on the nutrition, it falls flat," said Ryan Clark, the brand's director of marketing.
Now that some people see dieting as a lifelong commitment to healthy eating - rather than a crash diet - they're determined to find ways to continue enjoying their favorite foods, said Lisa Lillien, who runs HungryGirl.com, a popular Web site that sniffs out and rates tasty low-calorie alternatives.
"Any time you want to eat something, you can find a guilt-free version that's just as good," said Lillien, who also writes a diet column for the New York Daily News.