Government efforts to urge food manufacturers to slash saturated fat in products could be “barking up the wrong tree”, according to industry experts.
Speaking after the government’s publication of industry progress in the field on Saturday (October 26), oils and fats consultant Geoff Talbot told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “There are so many conflicting bits of research on this that you don’t really know where you are.”
He said research into the area suggested evidence was divided over whether some level of saturated fats in foods was good or bad for health.
“One work has indicated consumption increased bad (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream and good cholesterol as well, suggesting it’s not 100% bad for you.”
Fats have always been an essential component of many foods, such as biscuits, confectionery and cakes, helping them to bind together and providing textural properties as well as flavour, said Talbot.
In addition, he said what had never been clear for food manufacturers was what they could replace saturated fats with in foods. “What is clear is that if you take saturated fats out and replace them with carbs, that’s a really bad move.”
Pilloried for health reasons
Trans fats had been conclusively pilloried for health reasons and even the health benefits of polyunsaturates had been questioned, he said. That left monounsaturated fats, which were not suitable as ingredients for all products.
Many dairy products, for example, naturally contain saturated fat and would not exist in their present form if they were removed.
Oils often contained a mixture of fats, which made their reduction or removal questionable, Talbot said. For example, palm oil had recently been attacked on health grounds, but contained a mixture of monounsaturated, or ‘good’ fats and saturated fats.
He also mentioned an article published in the British Medical Journal last week, challenging the premise that reducing saturated fat would significantly reduce heart disease risk.
The article, ‘Saturated fat is not the major issue’ , penned by Dr Aseem Malhotra, interventional cardiology specialist registrar, Croydon University Hospital, London, argued removing sat fats might contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“The reduction in LDL cholesterol from reducing saturated fat intake seems to be specific to large, buoyant (type A) LDL particles, when in fact it is the small, dense (type B) particles (responsive to carbohydrate intake) that are implicated in cardiovascular disease,” writes Malhotra.
“Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk.”
‘Obesity levels are going up’
Talbot said making fat reduction a priority for health clearly wasn’t delivering expected benefits: “Fat levels [in foods] are coming down, but obesity levels are going up and diabetes levels are going up.”
Malhotra suggested one reason for this is that taking fat out of foods makes them taste worse, so the food industry replaced them with added sugar.
Excess sugar consumption is now believed by many to be an independent risk factor in the development of metabolic syndrome, he said.
Two thirds of people admitted to hospital for heart attacks had metabolic syndrome, yet 75% of those had normal total cholesterol concentrations, suggesting cholesterol was not the issue.
Talbot said: “If what he has said is correct, there is a danger the Department of Health is barking up the wrong tree.”
'May not be right way to go'
Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, which represents staple products such as bacon, cheese and butter, said: “Recent research from scientists is saying the idea of cutting down on saturated fats may not be the right way to go.
“The government has put so much effort into this policy that if they have got it wrong then it’s going to make the problem they are trying to address even worse.”
For more on Cheney’s view of Malhotra’s article, read her comment in the November issue of Food Manufacture, which lands on desks next week.