Firms are working to help consumers indulge – without getting the bulge. Anne Bruce reports
While it may be the case that everyone wants to be phat (meaning hot and tempting), no-one really wants to be fat (meaning hot and sweaty).
The trouble is that, at heart, most people value cream cakes above carrot sticks, and prefer to finish a box of chocolates, rather than leave a job half done. But what if there was another way?
What if you could still indulge, but without the bulge? Well, the idea is moving from the realms of fantasy into reality, thanks to the work of the multi-billion pound fat replacement section of the food industry. And frivolity is strictly off limits for these food scientists. This is all about technology, the challenge of making fat taste like full fat.
Fat reduction technology currently occupies a continuum that starts with skimming fat off milk and advances into replacing saturated fats with other fats or with fat alternatives such as seaweed extracts, gums and fibre. It then moves onto more experimental technologies, such as water in oil emulsions and cyro-crystallisation.
Tim Van der Schraelen from Beneo, which supplies companies such as Nestlé and Danone, says Beneo favours fat substitution. Its fat replacement ingredients are often based on the prebiotic chicory root (inulin), extracts from sugar beet or rice although it is constantly looking at other ingredients that could enlarge the scope of its portfolio.
Both rice and inulin have a good application in dairy, and can allow extra positive claims to be made, for example, high fibre and digestive health. Van de Schraelen explains: "We use chicory for its long-chain inulin, when you mix this with water in food, the particles are a similar size to fat. It requires homogenisation, but you homogenise milk anyway."
Beneo uses rice starch to change texture. It offers a range of rice particle sizes depending on the needs of the customer. As rice is a 'natural' product and does not carry E-numbers, it can be used in 'natural ranges', which is a key benefit.
Dairy and cereals and bread are the areas where most innovation is demanded as consumers associate them most closely with healthy eating, says Van der Schraelen.
Karl Burkitt, strategic marketing director, Kerry Ingredients & Flavours says manufacturers demand 'drop in' solutions that do not require additional processing equipment. In order to achieve this, Kerry has developed a set of ingredients that match specific functions of fat.
Kerry combines special treated dairy ingredients, enzymes, emulsifiers and cream flavours to achieve reduced fat levels. Synergistic effects that open up new areas for reduction can often be achieved, says Burkitt. For example, reductions in saturated fat levels in ice cream are achieved by combining novel fermented dairy ingredients technology with specific emulsifiers.
At Cargill Texturizing Solutions, global communications manager Christine Nicolay says compound systems are gaining widespread appeal, combining at least two ingredients that will deliver performance distinct from that achievable from their use separately.
One product on offer from Cargill is a vegetal restructured full-fat replacer based on a jellifying alginate and soy flour, which is provided in a powder form. This product can be mixed with water and vegetable oil and worked into an emulsion. It can be used immediately in blended meat products such as Frankfurters, or chilled overnight to form a white substance for use in products such as salamis where visible pieces of white fat are required.
The basic constituents Cargill uses to provide texture and stability include polysaccharides such as carrageenans, pectins, alginates, xanthan gum, locust bean gum and guar gum. It should not be forgotten that there is still some scope for further reductions in fat in day-to-day foods, says industry expert Geoff Talbot, 'the fat consultant'. There is room to reduce the total fat content of hard cheeses such as Cheddar by about 10% within the scope of the regulations, he suggests.
With bakery, the average saturated fat content of plain biscuits ought to be able to be reduced by at least 10% by using a lower saturates dough. Cakes and cake creams are made from cake margarines and lower saturated fat cake margarines are now available to allow for some reductions to be made.
Buttercream, though, has to be made from butter. Short pastry could also be reduced by about 10% and, although some reductions ought to be possible in puff pastry these are more difficult because a hard (and therefore saturated) fat is needed to laminate and lift the pastry.
Nothing at all can be done with chocolate in the EU because it is a tightly defined term. As far as chocolate-flavoured coatings are concerned, the minimum saturated fat content is about 6065% so if someone is using a higher saturated fat than this then there is scope for reduction.
On meat, a great deal has already been achieved by better butchery. It is possible to reduce the fat a bit in sausages and burgers but fat gives them a succulence that it is difficult to replace by other ingredients, says Talbot.
In five years' time the world of fat reduction may be a very different place, and much less of a slog, due to the emerging technology of cyro-crystallisation. With this process, liquid oil/fat is atomised and then instantly crystallised in contact with liquid nitrogen to result in a free-flowing powder. This can then be used as an ingredient in foods. Wayne Morley, head of ingredients and product innovation at Leatherhead Food Research (LFR), says that we are still three to five years away from seeing this procedure as a working technology.
But the process has so far been successfully applied in short-crust pastry, and further work is underway in spreads/margarine and puff pastry applications. The benefits are that increased solid fat contents are claimed when compared with oil/fat blends that are crystallised using standard techniques. This may allow the product functionality to be maintained with healthier blends, Morley says.
But the technology is still unproven for food oils/fats with the reproducibility of achieving higher solid fat contents and the structure and properties of the cyro-crystallised materials still to be established. Stability during storage at ambient, chilled, and frozen temperatures is also unknown. To bring this into the real world, food processing conditions would have to be altered as the cryo-crystallised oil/fat cannot be melted.
More developed technologies that LFR is still working on include water in oil emulsions to reduce fat content. With these, the 'internal' water phase becomes part of the dispersed oil phase thus reducing the overall oil/fat content while maintaining the organoleptic properties.
There are, however, still some drawbacks, says Morley. The emulsion structure is relatively unstable, leading to coalescence of the 'internal' and 'external' water phases, thus reducing the effective dispersed oil content. Also, the optimal emulsifier that is used to prepare the water and oil emulsion is polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR), also known as E476. But this has a limited legal usage in foods and is not particularly 'label-friendly'.
Other water and oil-based emulsifiers, such as lecithins, are generally not as effective as PGPR. PGPR can be legally applied in the EU to spreadable fats containing 41% fat or less, dressings and cocoa-based confectionery, including chocolate.
Novel ways for manufacturers to reduce saturated fats also include diacylglycerol oils, these are oils based on diglycerides rather than triglycerides and can give comparable melting profiles for lower saturated fat contents.
Structured lipids containing high-melting, long-chain saturates at a lower level will give a saturated fat reduction for the same functionality and possibly give a product in which the saturates are less well absorbed. But, as we wait for more space age solutions to be developed, taste enhancement is the main concern.
Burkitt says that there is already a belief among consumers that reduced fat, sugar or salt is linked to inferior product flavour and or texture in some categories. And consumers' primary considerations remain price and, ultimately, taste. Secondary, then, come other claims such as product plus or minus fat reduced and so on.
Van der Schraelen agrees. While 'low fat' is the most desirable health claim for manufacturers launching new products, there are a series of provisos. "While low fat may be a box that needs to be ticked, it's not at the expense of taste. Consumers will only make very limited concessions on taste when it comes to health," he says. Manufacturers are also demanding that products be 'low fat plus', which means low fat with an additional health benefit.
Weight management and fat reduction will always be important in the food sector because research shows it is very high on shoppers' priority list particularly women's. But, for now, the scientists have not finished making the cream cakes less 'naughty', while still tasting nice.