Reducing saturated fat in foods brings challenges in the areas of taste and texture, says Cargill, but the FSA's programme in the UK could stimulate development of solutions for specific products and production processes.
Last week the UK's Food Standards Agency saturated fat and energy intake reduction programme, in which it to reduce intake from current average levels by people over the age of five years from 13.3 per cent of food energy per day to under 11 per cent by 2010.
Its approach involves encouraging further voluntary reformulation of specific food groups to contain less saturated fat and sugar, increasing healthier options, and publishing industry commitments to reformulate.
Taste and texture
Pierre Boulanger, category manager for meat at Cargill, said that saturated fat comes mostly from animal sources or from dairy, and is a widely-used, key element in food products.
Fat itself provides the food product with two elements - taste and texture.
"If you remove the fat, you have a totally different product when you eat it," he said.
This means that some compensation is necessary. There is some scope to work with flavours to improve taste, especially in products that are usually flavoured, such as dairy and yoghurts.
In meat it is more difficult to compensate on flavour, since the only addition flavours tend to be salt and spices.
When it comes to texture, however, Cargill has a broad range of ingredients at its disposal, including lecithin, hydrocolloids, starch and cultures, that can be blended to make a solution that meets the particular product and process needs.
No one solution can be applied across the board, however. For instance, a yoghurt with reduced saturated fat will call for a quite different approach to a meat product.
Boulanger explained that, in meat, the animal fat is often replaced with vegetable fat. Texture is put back with alginates and other ingredients that can give the real feel of fat.
Initially, he said, this solution was developed for countries where pork fat cannot be used, on religious or dietary preference grounds. Now, however, it is gaining ground in other areas thanks to the saturated fat reduction trend.
Anticipation and customer focus
Boulanger said that, in terms of R&D, he does not expect there to be any groundbreaking new individual ingredients for saturated fat replacement. Cargill already has a comprehensive portfolio of texturisers, and can also call on ingredients from the global company's other divisions
Work is on-going on compositions, however - that is, finding the right combinations of ingredients for specific needs - and R&D is conducted on both an internal and an external basis.
On the one hand the company has ongoing work in its laboratories to identify food trends and try to anticipate the needs of the final market. On the other, customers approach the company with their questions.
In Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Cargill has sales teams by food category, whose job it is understand the customer's needs, and the processes that the ingredients will go through.
The company has four application centres in France, Benelux and Spain, which receive customers, demonstrate the solutions and to adapt them to the processes.
Cargill's teams then run trials (with and without the client in attendance), then fine tune the solution at the customer's own factory.
They need to be sure that the customer can produce the final product they want, and most be able to work with only slight modifications to their factory set-up - if any, explained Boulanger.
The impact of the FSA programme
Boulanger is hopeful that the new FSA targets will translate into greater interest in Cargill's solutions. "There is concern about health in this segment," he said. "There are a lot of products making claims such as less saturated fat and less sugar, as well as products enriched with ingredients like omega-3."
Such claims, he said, are not only based on marketing but also on regulatory requirements and scientific studies.
Christine Nicolay, marketing manager for Cargill Texturizing Solutions, said: "It is an important initiative, and we are very interested to see how other countries react to that."
Boulanger said: "All the big food groups are working on this, and the SMEs (small and medium enterprises) are following suit," - although he added that some SMEs are very innovative.
He noted that the FSA targets relate to levels to be achieved in the diet globally, rather than any particular food product.
In terms of how much of a reduction can be achieved in any one food product, the possibilities vary wildly. For example, in some products which currently have 2 per cent saturated fat it can be eliminated entirely.
With others, this will not be possible.
He stressed that it is important to look at the diet itself. A consumer may continue to eat butter each morning, but he food industry can propose low fat spreads instead.
"The idea is to have the choice to reduce saturated fat," he said, but, at the end of the day, if the consumer does not want the low fat version they will not eat it.
Crucially, food is not being seen as the only means to reduce saturated fat intake and improve public health. The FSA document also places stress on consumer education, and the agency is currently looking at the best way to get the message across to consumers.