During the debate, which was hosted by Leatherhead Food Research and sponsored by Farmright and Rich Products, several firms said they felt pressured into taking action, but were encountering technical, commercial, regulatory and marketing hurdles at every turn.
As one delegate told FoodManufacture.co.uk, “If I’m proposing to spend a significant sum of money on reformulating my company’s products, I need to show my finance director where the payback is going to be, and I’m struggling to do that at the moment.”
He added: “The picture I’m getting from the people around the table today [representatives from several of the UK’s leading supermarkets, caterers and food manufacturers] is that the thinking on this remains very muddled. In some ways this is reassuring because I know that we are not way behind everyone else on this topic.”
Another delegate added: “There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on anything, from whether you do it by stealth, or tell people what you’re doing, or even whether there is a clear public health benefit if we do do it.”
Retailers at the event said that they had made significant progress on reducing saturated fat across own-label ranges, achieving reductions of up to 50% in selected chilled prepared foods as well as high-profile reductions in crisps and snacks.
However, it was also becoming clear that a one-size-fits all approach to sat fat reduction did not work, while regulatory constraints sometimes prevented firms from explaining changes they had made on-pack.
“On some products”, said Marks & Spencer head of health, nutrition and science Claire Hughes, “low saturated fat doesn’t necessarily seem a selling point. It all depends on the product. We’ve done research on this and if consumers see a cake with less saturated fat, for example, they think it’s a lower quality product that won’t taste as good.”
She added: “Look at salt, which was reduced in many products by stealth. I personally think that you should do the same on saturated fat unless you believe there are two different markets [for a standard version and a fat-reduced version].”
In some cases, said Sainsbury’s nutritionist Charlie Parker, “our aim is that the consumer doesn’t actually notice that we’ve reformulated the product, whereas in other areas, we might want to shout about it”.
Some messages around saturated fat reduction were only appealing to a certain percentage of customers, and could “really switch people off” if used inappropriately, she added. There was also evidence that ranges such as Count on Us were seen as “much more acceptable for women than for men”, she claimed.
Unilever Vitality project director Dr Julia Davidson also agreed that in some instances, manufacturers should reformulate by ‘stealth’, and that if they wanted to communicate changes, they should avoid negative messages.
“Marketers want something positive to communicate, so with salt, we talked about adding more vegetables rather than removing salt.”
Similarly, on fats, Unilever’s focus was on “fat quality rather than ‘this is what we’re taking away’”, she said.
There was also little consensus on the scientific rationale behind the Food Standards Agency’s campaign to reduce saturated fat intakes.
Dairy UK technical director Ed Komorowski said: “We feel that the messages on saturated fat are not science-based. We’ve never accepted that the science shows that dairy in any way is harmful to health and it’s interesting that the new science is starting to confirm that position.”
He added: “It’s also interesting to ask ourselves why obesity has increased when fat intakes as a percentage of the diet have decreased. There is a real risk of governments pushing out messages based on unproven science when it could have adverse consequences.”
Round table chairman ‘fat consultant’ Geoff Talbot, said some compelling academic studies had recently suggested that there was “no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is connected to increased risk of cardiovascular disease”.
Replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates was also highly questionable, he argued. “Substituting polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats would be more beneficial for cardiovascular disease risk.”