It sounds more like a cosmetic implant than a food science programme, but the European Union's (EU's) new Lipgene project could indeed change the face of the British food industry.
The recently announced euro 16.5m EU project will involve 10 countries and 24 organisations as a rare coalition of nutritionists, animal health and plant scientists, economists and consumer experts attempts to tighten the belt on Europe's expanding waistline. Ultimately, they aim to bring about a major shift in public health policy and persuade manufacturers to adopt radically different ingredients and processes. Some even talk of the need to reintroduce production subsidies to make hitherto niche products affordable to a wider audience.
In the dock for precipitating a 'European health crisis' are the most widely used nutrients in the food processing industry: fats.
Scary stuff? You bet. "In a few years time we are going to be knocking on the doors of the US showing obesity levels of around 40%; this is not a trivial problem," says the project's Professor Christine Williams, head of Food Bio-Sciences at the University of Reading.
She claims that as the fat nations gets fatter, the race to change eating habits through public information channels is being rapidly lost. Twenty four million adults in the UK are already overweight or obese and the annual bill for related health problems, including heart attacks, stroke and type 2 diabetes, is running at around £3bn a year. For the UK and some of its closest European neighbours fat is swallowing up a massive 75% of the total health budget. Faced with such grossly impressive statistics, the government's proposed traffic light system for healthy food labelling looks frighteningly like rearranging the deckchairs as the ship sinks in a sea of deep fried scampi.
Food chain intervention
The alternative is direct intervention in the food chain and Lipgene sets out to do just that by developing new technology and novel ingredients to create prototype products with altered fat profiles that will lower consumption of saturated fats and boost intake of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, almost without consumers knowing it's happening.
Scientists from plant breeder BASF have already come up with a designer oil seed plant capable of producing the health-promoting long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid EPA, which, along with DHA, is only normally found in fish.
Although European acceptance of the genetic modification technology needed to create the plants is some way off, BASF plans to move into the food processing sector within the next five years.
"The future is in added-value products," says BASF's Dr Anja Klatt. "We would be looking to sell the oil to manufacturers. But it will not be commercially available until 2010."
That gives Williams' team time to unravel the complex relationship between fats and a cluster of potentially life threatening symptoms common in obese and overweight consumers which together are known as the metabolic syndrome or syndrome X. Lipgene researchers will concentrate on how the syndrome, thought to be present in as many as a quarter of UK adults, can be affected by both diet and our genes. According to Williams, people showing three or more of the symptoms -- which, among other tell-tale signs, include abdominal fat, high blood pressure and insulin resistance -- are five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and three times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, Europe's biggest killer.
"Over the next 20 years there will be an explosion in morbidity from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes," predicts Williams. "It's going to be extremely difficult to reverse obesity, so what we're asking is, are there factors that intervene between obesity and the metabolic syndrome."
The implications for the food industry are urgent and profound. When similar health concerns arose over trans fatty acids, Unilever unilaterally decided on a costly change from partial hydrogenation to an 'interestification' process in order to eliminate them from its spreads.
That was almost a decade before their potential as a carcinogen became an issue. Today, the company claims products such as Flora contain less than 1% trans fatty acids and its early decision has helped maintain its position as market leader.
"They could see what was coming," says Williams. "They realised it could wipe out the margarine industry, which was a very important part of their business. Manufacturers are seeing a shift in other ways, but the science has got to be done now."
The biggest challenge is likely to be in creating stable emulsions from new blends of oils in processes as wide ranging as milk processing and packet sauces, or any of a myriad of added-value products that have been emulsified at some stage in production.
James Fry, an independent economic consultant on the Lipgene project, believes that, given the inherently costly procedures involved, there is a strong case to be made for a healthy dose of production subsidy if food is to be used as an alternative therapy for some of Europe's most heavily prescribed diseases.
He points out that so long as niche products such as phytosterol spreads continue to enjoy a 250-300% premium over saturated fats in the tubs next door there will be no incentive for manufacturers to change their habits.
Williams agrees: "If you do not subsidise these products they are only going to be available to a small sector. That is not going to solve the problem; in fact, it's going to create a divide between the worried well-off and the rest of us."
The need to establish identity preservation (IP) systems for positive health products will also add substantially to manufacturing costs.
"Identity preservation systems are needed to keep these products segregated from the cheaper commodities," says Fry. "The average process costs in plant-based products, for example, are more than treble. For milk made with high omega 3 or conjugated linoleic acid the cost is anything between 10% and 60% higher than conventional product.
"If you can subsidise enough so that healthy food is as cheap as conventional and tastes as good you can capture 100% of the market. Then you won't need IP chains and the healthy product becomes the commodity."
Manufacturers are clearly expected to play their part, not only in spreading the low-fat message, but in incorporating new fat technologies and increasing their R&D spend on alternative ingredients.
As Paulus Vershuren of Unilever Holland says, the writing is already on the wall: "Consumers are starting to understand that what they eat has something to do with how long they live. Our job is to make food more healthy; fat technology will play an increasingly important role in that." And he speaks from experience. FM
Plants being developed to "grow fish oils"
With the government now under pressure to revise its advice on eating oily fish following heightened concern over critically low seafish stocks, Lipgene's research into alternative methods of producing the beneficial omega-3 fats EPA and DHA from plants could not be more timely.
Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamstead Research says: "Long chain
polyunsaturated fatty acids are synthesised predominantly by micro algae in the marine environment. They move up the food chain as little fish eat the algae and are, in turn, eaten by bigger fish. But fish stocks are in perilous decline and aquaculture's use of fish oils has also increased dramatically, so that by 2010 they will be using almost all of the world's resources."
Lipgene is backing a genetic modification programme which takes genes from algae and transfers them into oilseed plants to replicate the 20 carbon long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids normally found in fish and is now in demand from processors to enrich a wide range of products.
Food Manufacture is hosting a conference on trends in healthy new product development called Winning Ways to Healthier Food and Drink on February 22 at the Cavendish Centre, London. For further information and a booking form, call 01293 610255.