Calls for levies on fat have intensified in recent years but regulation on the level of the nutrient in food is rare. Education and reformulation, often sparked by campaigners, have been the two ways in which industry and governments have looked to change the fat content in products.

Notwithstanding the calls in the UK by a group of medical academics earlier this month for the imposition of a 20% “fat tax”, legislative measures specifically penalising high-fat foods are rare and regulation to limit fat content in foods virtually unheard of. As discussed earlier in this briefing, regulation even to eliminate trans fats is rare.

Attempts to reduce fat intake in the diet revolve around public education and voluntary reformulation of products by the food industry. Such reformulation, which now often focuses more broadly on substituting bad fats with good fats, has often been prompted by pressure from campaigners or public health agencies.

There are also instances of voluntary industry action being undertaken as part of collaboration and dialogue with government departments, as is the case with the UK’s Public Health Responsibility Deal and the Australian Food and Health Dialogue, both of which are discussed in this section of the briefing.

Voluntary industry action

The emphasis on switching from bad to good fats is reflected in the voluntary undertakings the food industry and individual companies have made around fat reformulation, often in response to pressure from campaigners, government or public health agencies. 

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As part of the Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD), agreed between government and industry,  the UK food industry pledged to remove all artificial trans fats from products by the end of 2011. However, while there were specific undertakings on salt reductions in the PHRD, there were no such specific undertakings for saturated fat.

Voluntary collective undertakings in the US, notably the pledge made by companies belonging to the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), stipulate a reduction in total calories without specific undertakings on saturated fat. 

HWCF members have pledged to reduce annual calories in the US food supply by 1.5 trillion by the end of 2015, against a 2007 baseline, and sustain that level. The companies have also pledged to reduce annual calories by 1 trillion by the end of 2012, against the same baseline, but also with nothing specific on saturated fat.

While not as formalised as industry-government agreements in Australia and the UK, the HWCF has to a degree come about as a result of dialogue with government, specifically the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. The Obama administration has made tackling childhood obesity a priority and made it clear that the government expects more of industry across a number of dietary health issues including labelling, marketing and reformulation. 

Under the Australian Food and Health Dialogue, agreed between government and the food industry in 2009, the industry has set targets for reductions in nutrients of concern specific to certain categories. While specific commitments  for sodium reduction have been made for a number of categories, the only sector to be subject to a specific commitment on saturated fat to date is processed meat and this pledge is in itself restricted to certain products.

It is clear that there have been fewer specific voluntary collective undertakings on saturated fat by the food industry than for sodium, and to a degree this also reflects the greater focus given to to sodium reduction in recent years by government authorities in the UK and elsewhere.

However, individual global food companies, such as PepsiCo and Unilever, have made specific pledges on saturated fat reduction. 

Dairy and spreads lead the way

That said, the pace of reformulation has varied between product sectors. The reasons for this divergence can be explained both in terms of the technical difficulties presented and the willingness of companies to alter recipes in ways that they feel may risk losing market share. 

In terms of the volume of low-fat products available on the market, the dairy sector has probably been the most successful category with regard to fat reformulation.

Dr Ingrid Appelqvist, senior researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), sees the dairy sector as a first mover on fat reformulation but adds that in some instances the technical hurdles were of a less challenging nature than some of those faced in other sectors of the market.

What is critical in Appelqvist’s view is that with regard to both milk and yoghurt, consumers were “weaned off” higher fat variants and now completely accept them. In fact, she adds that the dairy sector has even managed to transform the low-fat variants, for example in milk, into the “mainstream” product that most consumers buy.

This is particularly relevant in view of the argument companies producing more indulgent products, such as cakes, biscuits and snackfoods, present in defence of moving more slowly on fat reformulation. This debate is discussed in the following section of this briefing but in essence producers of more indulgent products suggest that going further than they have now reached in fat reformulation will simply make those products unpalatable to consumers and result in their reduction.

Evidence in dairy and in the spreads sector suggests otherwise, Appelqvist contends. Consumers do get used to these changes. But she acknowledges another important factor differentiating the experience of dairy and that of cakes and biscuits. 

Appelqvist makes the important point that consumer expectations in the two categories are very different. “Dairy has always been something consumers reckon is a healthy product,” says Appelqvist which “lends itself well” to the fat reformulation challenge and effectively means fat reduction  is “complementary to the way consumers think about dairy”. 

In addition to dairy, the other segment that has seen a substantial amount of successful fat reformulation is spreads, and as some of the same processes can be used by extension in condiments and sauces.

Unilever is a leading player in this sector of the market and has invested significantly in fat reformulation in its spreads and condiments ranges which are led by brands such as Flora and Becel.

A case in point is Unilever’s new Flora variant, recently launched in the UK, which is made using new “Cool-blending” technology, developed and patented by the Anglo-Dutch combine. 

Unilever’s Leendert Wesdorp describes the new technology as “revolutionary”, allowing the company to “produce high-quality, low-fat margarines which taste delicious and help to keep consumers’ hearts healthier”. 

Describing the development as “one of the biggest technological developments in spreads since the 1950s”, Wesdorp adds: “We invented this new technology as Becel/Flora have always been the front runners in launching products with an optimal balance between saturated fat and unsaturated fat.”

Spreads are another sector of the market where lower-fat products have effectively become the norm, according to Appelqvist, and concurs that the leading companies in this sector have indeed “revolutionised fat reduction”.

The somewhat slower progress in the baked goods sector is discussed in the final section of this briefing.