Under pressure from regulators, campaigners and consumers, food companies are reformulating products to reduce what are sometimes termed “nutrients of concern”, including fat. In part one of this month’s management briefing, Ben Cooper writes that the issue of fat reduction proves food reformulation is as much about value judgments and perceptions as it is about scientific discovery and technological progress. 

“There is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets” has become something of a mantra for the food industry. However, even with the rider that any food which has been subjected to rigorous testing and complies with food regulations is safe to consume “as part of a balanced diet”, the industry’s somewhat proverbial defence only goes so far.

Under pressure from government regulators, public health organisations, campaigners and consumers, food companies are reformulating their products to reduce what are sometimes termed “nutrients of concern”, chiefly sodium, sugar and fat. 

However, what is required in the eyes of medical professionals to bring about the desired reductions in diet-related illness and what is technically achievable or likely to be accepted by consumers are matters of significant debate. And the issue of fat reduction and reformulation certainly provides ample illustration that food reformulation is as much about value judgments and perceptions as it is about scientific discovery and technological progress. 

This briefing looks at issues around fat reformulation, examining the factors bearing on industry to reformulate the fat composition of food products, the progress that has been made to date, comparisons in the pace of change between certain sectors, the perspectives of leading food companies on the technicalities of reformulation and consumer perceptions relating to fat content.

Fat in the hierarchy of food concerns

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The term ‘HFSS’ foods, denoting high in salt, sugar or fat, has become a much-employed term in the food and health debate and a particularly convenient one for the industry as it avoids that rather more loaded descriptor, junk food.

However, while it may be convenient to group these three nutrients of concern together, in the context of the broad debate about diet and health, the technical challenges inherent in reducing their respective levels in processed foods are of course different. But, even more importantly, they differ in terms of the priority they have been given, and in terms of how consumers relate to attempts, either by public health agencies or food companies, to reduce their intake.

It may be easy to say sodium, sugar and fat are all over-consumed in modern diets with resultant health risks, so their reduction is equally important but there has clearly been more attention paid by both government health departments and the food industry to sodium reduction in recent years than to fat reduction. 

In fact, in the hierarchy of food health concerns fat reduction may well be the lowest priority of the three nutrients. 

Changing emphasis in fat reformulation

This speaks to changing thinking among epidemiologists and nutritionists about the role fat plays in food, diet and health. Twenty or so years ago, there was a focus principally on the heart health risks associated with high cholesterol levels and any emphasis on reformulation of mainstream products that there was, or the development of better-for-you products, therefore tended to be focused simply on providing low-fat variants.

Owing to the structural importance of fat in processed foods, the primary technologies for reducing fat focused primarily on replacing fat in formulations with carbohydrate-based, protein-based substitutes or lipid-based fat substitutes.

At the same time, there was a significant amount of emphasis on the search for an artificial synthetic fat substitute which could perform the functional properties of fat and provide the textural and taste-related functions with fewer calories and accompanying health risks. That search has largely proved fruitful.

In some areas of the food market, for example spreads and dairy, these approaches to fat substitution can be said to have been relatively successful, with a relatively high level of consumer acceptance for lower-fat options. In other categories, notably in indulgences products such as cakes and biscuits, there has been far slower progress.

Food companies contend that the changes in mouthfeel and taste brought about by significant fat replacement in such products result in the products being rejected by consumers. Some public health advocates suggest food companies have been reluctant to push back the envelope on this, fearing loss of market share, and that debate is discussed in greater depth later in this briefing. But whether due to reluctance on the part of food companies or intractable technical challenges it is undoubtedly the case that certain food categories have proved more readily suited to fat reduction than others. 

The possible over-emphasis on fat reduction has produced some unintended negative consequences, as Dr Ingrid Appleqvist, senior researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), points out: “Twenty years ago, fat was deemed as being bad for you so industry did take it out, but often replaced it with starches and sugars which from an energy density perspective wasn’t doing much good to the consumer.” 

As any dietician will tell you, fat is an essential part of the diet and avoiding fat altogether would result in insufficient intake of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids.

Moreover, as researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) among others have made clear, under certain conditions a low-fat diet can be relatively unhealthy if the wrong products are consumed to achieve that fat reduction.

Sadly, many of those “wrong” products have been marketed as lower-fat, “healthier” options. Earlier this year, HSPH launched a campaign in collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America to combat what it described as the “low fat is best” myth, focusing particularly on low-fat muffins.

HSPH said that many low-fat muffins, while promoted as a healthier choice, in fact often have reduced levels of heart-healthy fats, such as liquid plant oils, and more harmful carbohydrates in the form of white flour and sugar. It added that many other low-fat processed foods “are not much better”, and are often “higher in sugar, carbohydrates or salt than their full-fat counterparts”. Diets high in these types of processed carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

While campaigners clearly remain concerned at the potentially harmful nutritional profile of certain healthier options, some of these challenges can be overcome with better nutritional labelling, notably front-of-pack labelling. One of the primary reasons why campaigners prefer interpretive forms of front-of-pack labelling is because with such systems a product which may give an impression of being healthier by dint of a reduction in a certain nutrient of concern will also bear a cross or a red light if they retain a higher level of another nutrient of concern.

In conclusion, while the overall reduction of sodium and added sugar has latterly been afforded more weight than overall fat reduction, the reduction specifically of saturated fat and the elimination of trans fats created by the use of hydrogenated vegetable oil are seen quite differently. 

The changing emphasis in fat reformulation and in public health messaging from overall fat reduction to replacing bad fats with good fats, and growing consumer awareness about different types of fat, are further discussed in the following section of this briefing. 

For a look at the rest of just-food’s management briefing on fat reformulation, click here.