The fourth article in just-food’s management briefing on food reformulation looks at competing priorities, in particular how the increased focus on salt and latterly sugar may mean less attention is paid to reducing fat, by both consumers and food companies.

Food reformulation aimed at improving dietary health is increasingly held to be a vital component in any public health strategy to address problems such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease. It also shares a defining feature of preventive health measures, that of balancing competing priorities.

That the food reformulation debate focuses on three nutrients of concern – namely, salt, fat and sugar – illustrates precisely that point. There are two ways that food technologists and marketers have to consider the balance between different nutrients, which are, rather fascinatingly, entirely different from one another and yet at the same time completely connected.

In the first place, they seek to balance the nutrients as components in a formulation, which often means that as they strive to drive down one nutrient of concern the level of another in a recipe rises.

Secondly, they are balancing the relative importance or urgency attached to reducing that particular nutrient.

The significance attached to the reduction of the various nutrients has a history of changing, chiefly owing to progress in the nutritional science and the epidemiology of diet-related disease.

It was noted in the previous section of this briefing that sugar has quite clearly become the predominant concern over the past year or so, but arguably the nutrient which most clearly illustrates the trend of shifting priorities is fat.

There was a time when reducing fat was the primary focus in food reformulation and in a lot of nutritional messaging, with the association between cholesterol and coronary heart disease driving much of the thinking. Over the years, the role of different types of fat in the diet has been revealed to be far more nuanced and complex.

The increasing focus on reducing carbohydrate intake, coupled with the wider appreciation of the positive health impacts of certain fats, has undoubtedly meant that fat reduction has become a less important issue for many consumers.

The degree to which fat has consequently become a less prominent or pressing issue for public health professionals and food companies is hard to judge, but attendance figures at a recent conference on reformulation arguably tell their own story.

The Reformulation Series Conference in Amsterdam brought together representatives from food companies, ingredients manufacturers, dieticians, campaigners and public health professionals. Taking place over three days, the conference opted to cover each nutrient in turn. The first day, which dealt with sodium reduction, had 52 delegates. The following day, the agenda moved to sugar and the audience swelled to some 77, but the third day which focused on fat only attracted 42 delegates.

Whatever these figures might indicate about interest in fat reduction as a topic, it is clear that reducing intake of saturated fat and trans fat is as important as ever, though public health messaging and advice has had to become more specific to reflect the developments in dietary science related to fat overall. The UK’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD), meanwhile, includes a saturated fat reduction pledge, rather than a fat reduction pledge, along with pledge concerning trans fats.

Trends in food reformulation are determined both by the “push” from government and public health agencies and the external pressure of campaigners and the “pull” of consumer demand, so it would not be entirely surprising if fat becomes less of a priority as other factors become more important to consumers.

On the other hand, while the attendance figures in Amsterdam reflect the current focus of the debate, it is fairly unlikely that research on the science of fat reformulation would markedly reduce because of the first question related to balancing the three nutrients in any given recipe.

The degree to which the role of the three nutrients of concern are related in any formulation means all have always to be considered, whatever their relative importance. Indeed, it is entirely possible that a reduction in one nutrient is enabled by a breakthrough related to a different nutrient. That said, the greater importance now being attached to sugar could of course affect which solution a company chooses, while with regard to products specifically labelled and marketed as better-for-you, it would be entirely understandable if a company’s focus moves towards sugar or carbohydrates in general in proportion with changing consumer sensibilities.

Figures from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel do suggest that the focus has moved away from fat, and could indicate that the balance in terms of consumer perceptions around the three nutrients may have swung too far.

Kantar Worldpanel tracks the volumes of major nutrients of concern against the total market volume growth in food. Reflecting the success of the UK’s salt reduction campaign, only salt grew at a lower rate than the market. Salt volumes, excluding table salt which actually skews the data because it is used for other household purposes, rose by 1.7%, against total market volume growth of 8%. Sugar volumes have risen by 10.9% versus the 8% market growth, but fat volumes are up 12.4% and saturated fat by 13.3%.

Addressing the Reformulation Series, Wayne Morley, group head of technical innovation at 2 Sisters Food Group, said he believes the food industry “has done a pretty good job over the past 10 or 20 years in fat reduction. Fat levels in a number of products have come down quite dramatically.”

However, while acknowledging that the focus had shifted somewhat to salt and sugar, Morley said the work on fat reduction in formulations is “still very relevant and very important”.

Summarising the challenges and opportunities for further fat reduction through reformulation, Morley said some fat reduction solutions will present ‘clean label’ issues, as discussed in the previous section of this briefing.

Another “real challenge” in fat reduction is that taking fat out is sometimes compensated for by adding more water “which can then mean you have more salt and sugar to give the same sensory experience, which is why low-fat products often contain high salt levels and high sugar levels.”

However, overall Morley was upbeat about the opportunities for further fat reduction, stressing that effective solutions are available. While some technologies are costly, he pointed out that replacing fat with water, where permitted, could lead to “significant cost savings”. He also said that even where total fat reduction might be difficult, saturated and trans fats can still be reduced.