Dairy processors have been at the forefront of fat reformulation but bakers and snack makers have not made as much ground. Those in the sector argue they can go no further but, as Ben Cooper writes in the final part of just-food’s management briefing, others believe further progress can be achieved.

While dairy and spreads have been in the vanguard of fat reformulation, progress has been slower in the baked goods category owing to a combination of technical challenges and concern about consumer rejection of reformulated products.

While leading food companies in these sectors claim they have reached the maximum level of saturated fat reduction possible, this is disputed by external experts who believe the industry can go further.

Consumer expectations of indulgent products

In addition to the technical challenges created by the functional properties of fat in cakes and other baked goods, such as biscuits, food companies contend that there are strong consumer-led factors limiting what is possible in fat reduction.

John Petre, innovation director at Premier Foods plc, says the company has “reached the limit” of what is possible in terms of saturated fat content in its Mr Kipling range. “I think we have got to the limit of what we can do at the moment with what’s currently available.”

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However, Ingrid Appelqvist, senior researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an Australian government-funded research institute which works both with government and industry on technological developments across a range of industries, believes that in general food companies can go further. 

“Most companies say they’re using the minimum amount of [saturated] fat but I don’t think that’s necessarily so,” Appelqvist tells just-food, citing the baked goods sector as an example.

However, Appelqvist, who in her role as liaison between CSIRO and the Australian Department of Health and Ageing has direct involvement in discussions between industry and government as part of the Food and Health Dialogue, is sympathetic to food companies’ concerns.

“In many cases they are very worried about reducing fat and I can understand that because they are concerned about losing market share, they’re concerned it might not taste the same. And they are dependent on loyal consumers.” However, she adds that there is “still quite a bit that can be done without any loss of functionality if they just dare to do it.” And a reduction of a “few percent” of products that are frequently consumed can be “quite significant” in health terms.

In fact, Appelqvist suggests that further reductions of as much as 15% or 20% in salt, sugar and fat are realisable for many products without consumers knowing the difference. 

“In biscuits, chocolates and sweets and so on I think there is still quite a lot of room to reduce fat, or sugar for that matter, without impacting on any of the sensory properties or the technical properties of that product. It would be very difficult for consumers to notice the difference.”

Industry experts beg to differ. “When you start making products that are substantially reduced in total fat they are very different in taste to what consumers are looking for,” says Alice Cadman, head of strategic projects at United Biscuits. 

Cadman continues: “Consumers do want their cake and eat it. They want more health credentials but actually they still want it to taste great, and you have to recognise that we’re in categories which are eaten as treats more often than not and you do want to treat yourself with something that tastes nice rather than something that is perhaps a little drier than is ideal.”

Petre concurs. “Our experience has been that consumers know that cakes are ‘unhealthy’ if you want to look at it that way, and they should have them in moderation. And if you try and provide them with a healthy cake first of all you’re met with a certain degree of scepticism – ‘is it going to be any good?’ –  and also a feeling that people don’t want to compromise on how tasty a cake is. So we found that trying to sell people healthy cakes is not what people expect. People don’t buy into it.”

Echoing Appelqvist’s observation that fat reduction in dairy was consistent with a traditional and prevailing consumer perception that dairy products are healthful, Petre believes how consumers perceive the healthful potential of product categories covers a spectrum, and where products are on that spectrum in turn affects the level of acceptance for lower-fat options.

“There are things people expect to be healthy like smoothies, things where you can be healthy, like margarines, through to things like cake where people just don’t expect it. It’s not what they’re looking for and they worry that it will take away from the pleasure of the product and the moment.”

However, manufacturers’ concerns about consumer reactions to products with fat levels lowered often stem from results they have had to comparison testing with consumers, which Appelqvist suggests can give rather misleading results. “Consumers can notice differences if they get two things put in front of them and they taste things together but if you ask them to taste a cake one week and then you slightly reduce the sugar or the fat and ask them to taste it the week after they are not going to be able to tell the difference.” 

Better-for-you cakes and biscuits 

Appelqvist also says sensory research shows that consumers simply have lower taste expectations of cakes and biscuits labelled as lower in fat or sugar, which affect how they react to the product. 

Interestingly, a few years ago Premier Foods launched a better-for-you variant in the Mr Kipling range called Delightful. However, Petre says the range was withdrawn because “there wasn’t a strong consumer uptake”.

This experience could in a way support either side of the argument. Either people simply did not “buy into” the idea of a healthier cake or the product was fine but consumers’ expectations were affected by the fact that it was branded as being healthier.

But other healthier baked ranges and treats have achieved better results. Cadman says UB’s Go Ahead healthier treats range is “doing extremely well at the moment”. 

She also points to the success the company has enjoyed with ‘Light’ variants for its McVitie’s Digestives, Rich Tea and Hobnobs brands as well as for Jacob’s Cream Crackers, which have 30% less fat than the mainstream equivalents. Amongst its innovations related to fat reduction, Cadman describes the work on these  biscuit ranges as “without doubt the technical innovation we’re most proud of”.