Fears have been expressed that pressure on smaller food manufacturers to reduce the fat and sugar content in their products could reduce shelf-life and result in more food poisoning outbreaks. This is due to the inhibitive effect that these ingredients provide against the growth of dangerous pathogens and mould development.
There are concerns that smaller manufacturers might not have the expertise to modify their products to maintain adequate microbiological protection, as part of the product reformulation necessary to meet the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) targets for reducing obesity across the nation.
Research findings presented to the FSA’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) last week reported: “A reduction in fat and/or sugar levels in products can lead to an increase in moisture content and in some cases this may lead to a rise in water activity. Any increase in water activity could increase the likelihood of microbiological spoilage or food poisoning.”
Dr Gail Betts, from the Microbiology Department of Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association, who led the study, said: “Where changes in water activity are not balanced by other preservative factors, then the risk of microbial growth is increased.” She added: “Any product group has a potential microbiological risk if the reduction in fat and/or sugar levels increase the water activity sufficiently to increase microbiological growth.”
The ACMSF called for more evidence about the risks and benefits of fat and sugar reductions in susceptible food groups including cakes, muffins and chilled foods, such as sausages; and in savoury pastries and cheese spreads, where the consequences of food poisoning can be particularly severe.
ACMSF member Jenny Morris highlighted the problems faced by small companies in conducting the necessary hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) evaluation associated with reformulation. “Where is the support for small businesses?” she asked. “There will be particular difficulties for small businesses.”
Other committee members raised the dangers of trying to apply a “broad brush” solution to an issue where the problems encountered are likely to vary markedly from product to product. Sainsbury’s head of product safety Alec Kyriakides recalled the serious botulism outbreak several years’ back, which was directly linked to a batch of hazelnut yoghurt with reduced sugar content. “It is very clear: if you reduce sugar … it will have an impact.”
The FSA has set objectives for reducing the average saturated fat intake in the UK from the current level of 13.4% to below 11% of food energy by 2010. It also aims to develop targets for achieving a balance between calorie intake and energy output through reductions in fats and added sugars in the diet. It is in discussion with the food industry to assess the scope and level of reformulation already achieved and that proposed for the future.
Reductions in saturated fat and sugar levels can be achieved by three routes: a simple reduction in their use as ingredients, although it is recognised this could have consumer acceptability implications; replacement with other less harmful fats such as mono or polyunsaturated fats and sweetening agents, such as fruit juice; and replacement of fats by other ingredients, such as wholegrains, and sugar by artificial sweeteners.