Chew the fats

Related tags Saturated fat Nutrition

Chew the fats
When it comes to reformulating products, the gap between big and small presents formidable challenges, says Rick Pendrous

The debate about saturated fats in food is anything but clear-cut and the health lobby's efforts to get manufacturers to voluntarily reformulate to reduce sat fat levels in their products pose almost as many questions as they answer.

That was the overriding message to emerge from last month's Food Manufacture saturated fats reduction round table at Leatherhead Food Research. The event, sponsored by Rich Products and Farmright, was chaired by specialist consultant on fats and oils Geoff Talbot someone who doesn't flinch at the sobriquet of 'the fat consultant'.

Talbot opened the debate by describing the findings of new pan-European research that questions the effectiveness of reducing fats in foods to reduce the instance of coronary heart and coronary vascular diseases (CHD/CVD).

The highest rates of CHD and CVD are in central and eastern Europe, while the highest sat fat intakes are in western Europe.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) indicates that the highest levels of saturated fats in our diet currently come from bakery and dairy products, fat spreads, meat products, snacks and confectionery mainly chocolate.

A new document just published by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) shows that its members both retailers and foodservice operators have already made considerable efforts to reduce saturated fat in their own-label products.

In fact, NDNS figures show that sat fat intakes have been reduced on average from 13.3% of food energy intake a day in 2000/1 to 12.8% a day in 2008/9, said BRC assistant food director Andrea Martinez-Inchausti. The Food Standards Agency wants people to reduce their intake to less than 11% a day.

However, said Martinez-Inchausti, the NDNS figures above are not really directly comparable and may understate achievements already made. This is because the earlier figures (2000/1) were measured across the whole week, whereas the more recent ones (2008/9) only measured intakes between Thursday and Sunday, which are likely to be higher. "So we feel the figure of 12.8% is inflated," she said.

If health arguments weren't enough of a problem, there is a whole raft of other problems with reformulation. These range from consumer acceptance issues when the mouthfeel of 'indulgent' foods is not as good as that of full-fat versions to complaints about lack of value for money when manufacturers and caterers attempt to reduce portion sizes and thus levels of intake.

Although with the correct marketing, as Unilever has proved with its Magnum Mini ice cream, such obstacles to reducing portion size can be overcome provided customers don't just decide they enjoyed the product so much that they eat lots of them at once!

Then there is the question of the sustainability of substitutes such as palm oil, which has around half the sat fat content of coconut oil, and potential issues of reduced shelf-life. And if you are looking at synthetic substitutes for 'natural' products, which might be higher in sat fats, there is the question of compromising the 'clean label' of ingredients lists something that is high on the agenda for most retailers at present.

For the industry there is yet another equally thorny issue to resolve. This arises from different behaviours of reformulated products. This can often necessitate investment in new kit to accommodate rheological changes in the way that raw materials behave and flow as they are handled during manufacture.

It is a significant issue, as David Ion, technical manager at Ginsters, highlighted. Not least the question of who pays for additional costs incurred. Manufacturers fear that these will be difficult to pass on.

"One of the big costs we have been looking at is our current equipment, which is spec'd to run certain materials with certain rheology," said Ion. "When you start to change the formulation, the rheology of the material changes and the costs incurred then to control the rheology of the material increases hugely and it is not straightforward technology."

For some products, saturated fat also provides other functional properties, such as a barrier to the migration of moisture in chocolate coated biscuits, which prevents them going soggy. This and other issues will not be easy to surmount and will require investment in research and development.

Whatever happens on the regulatory front, it seems inevitable that the industry will continue to reformulate its products to reduce levels of saturated fat. But while larger manufacturers and retailers have the resources to achieve these ends, there remains a serious question mark about whether smaller firms have the technical expertise or financial resources to do the same.

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