The UK's Food Standards Agency today published its saturated fat and energy intake reduction programme, in which it accepts that cutting back will pose technical challenges for food manufacturers, but it plans to work in partnership with industry and increase consumer awareness.
Saturated fat consists of triglycerides containing only saturated fatty acids - that is, fully saturated with hydrogen atoms. Saturated fat tends to be more solid at room temperature, and a diet high in saturated fat has been repeatedly linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Foods that are high in saturated fat include meat, hard cheese, butter, cream, pastry and cakes.
According to the FSA, UK consumers eat about 20 per cent more saturated fat than they should. It says that sticking to the recommendations could help prevent as many as 3,500 deaths in the UK each year as a result of lifestyle-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
The government agency's programme aims 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.
However the FSA noted that reformulation of foods in order to reduce the amount of saturated fat they contain presents a more complex technical challenge than reducing salt.
"In some foods, saturated fat provides an important structural function as well as contributing to the tastes of products and reducing it is not as simple as producing lower salt foods," it said.
However although much progress in salt reduction, it is not simply a matter of missing out an ingredient, since consumers are wont to reject a product if they do not like the taste - no matter how much healthier it is for them.
The initiative led to new R&D focus by the ingredients sector to develop salt replacers that could help maintain the original taste, by enhancing the salty taste of what salt is present, for instance.
Julien Hunt, communications director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), responded to today's announcement immediately by highlighting the work manufacturers are already doing in the area of saturated fat reduction.
"A snapshot survey of our leading members… found that since 2005 they have removed almost 30,000 tonnes of saturated fat from products as part of their ongoing efforts to reformulate their products," he said.
Hunt added that the federation is in favour of the collaborative approach between the FSA and industry since it has already yielded results in the area of salt reduction.
The FSA also says that greater availability of smaller portion sizes could help address the problem, and is planning an independent academic workshop to investigate the evidence of portions' role.
"FDF members have also been working on new approaches to portions, such a treat-size snacks, individual portion packs and sharing products," said Hunt.
The second part of the programme involves increasing consumer awareness activity on saturated fat consumption, but the agency is currently investigating appropriate activities to this end.
The programme was drawn up following a 12-week public consultation last year, which included a draft programme and a partial regulatory impact assessment outlining the estimated costs and benefits of the proposals.
The two-pronged approach being taken by the FSA is similar to that which it took for salt reduction. It says average salt consumption has reduced from 9.5g to 9g per day - and more reductions are expected once the 2010 salt reduction targets across various food groups have been fully implemented.
In December 2007 the FSA board recommended to health ministers a continuation of a voluntary approach in reducing trans fatty acids (unsaturated fat produced when liquid vegetable oils are turned into solid fats through the process of hydrogenation).
Opinion was gathered using findings from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) after health secretary Alan Johnson asked the FSA for its urgent advice on trans fats last October.
The FSA based its decision on evidence that voluntary industry action has so far proved a success in cutting trans fat levels dramatically. The estimated UK average intake is now 1 per cent of food energy, half the maximum levels advised by the SACN.