Could regulation tempt the industry to renew focus on low fat foods?

7 Nov 2018

The UK government aims to cut calories by 20% by 2024 in a range of popular foods, potentially shifting focus back onto foods’ fat content as companies strive to reach this target.

Could regulation tempt the industry to renew focus on low fat foods?

Regulators announced the calorie reduction target in March 2018 as part of a public health package that goes beyond a previous focus on sugar and salt reduction. The government called on industry to cut calories in 13 categories of foods and drinks that account for about a fifth of UK children’s caloric intake, including pizza, pre-made sandwiches, ready meals, savoury snacks and meat products. It has suggested the target could be achieved through a variety of measures, including reformulation, reducing portion sizes, and promoting lower calorie products.

Considering that fat, with its nine calories per gram, is more calorific than carbohydrate or protein, which contain four calories per gram, industry may be tempted to focus its efforts on fat reduction – a strategy that has backfired in the past. During the 1980s when low fat foods were widely considered healthier than their full fat counterparts, many food manufacturers replaced fat with sugars and other carbohydrates to make up for the differences in flavour, texture and structure in low fat products. But even as people ate more low fat foods, their average caloric intake increased. Research carried out since then suggests this is because people tend to eat bigger portions if foods are labelled ‘low fat’, and also because fat helps increase satiety, leading people to eat less overall.

To avoid a similar outcome, there are now more innovative ways to reduce fat – and therefore calories. Leatherhead Food Research predicts a rise in the use of gums, fibres and starches to improve texture and stability, and to mimic the properties of fats. In addition, it has suggested that water-in-oil-in-water emulsions may come to the fore as a way to slash calories without adding other potentially harmful ingredients.

Ingredient companies are beginning to respond with new products targeted to the government’s goal too. Ulrick & Short, for example, has introduced an ingredient based on wheat flour intended to cut fat in pastries by up to 25%.

Rising obesity rates make calorie reduction an important public health goal, and manufacturers are already under pressure to cut sugar in a wide range of foods and drinks. Industry has long bemoaned regulation that focuses on single ingredients, so the UK government’s latest plan has been welcomed by many in the industry as it allows for calorie reduction efforts that consider entire recipes.

However, product formulators will need to tread carefully in their approach, and must be mindful of potential unintended consequences. Fat reduction alone may seem to be a relatively simple solution, but a strategy that combines reformulation with revised portion sizes is likely to reap longer term results.

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