Food manufacturers are coming under increased pressure to produce foods with less fat, salt and sugar. Just last year a UK Government inquiry into the food industry's role in Britain's surging obesity and heart disease rates gave weight to the argument against the use of entirely artificial trans fats, used widely by the food processing industry. Up to 85% cheaper than natural fats such as butter, lard and palm oil, trans fat has long been criticised by researchers who say it has no health benefits for consumers.

The trouble with trans fats

Researchers have repeatedly warned that trans fats act as long-term toxins and have no benefit for consumers. They are created by 'hydrogenation' of vegetable oil – by heating it then blowing hydrogen through it.

The process transforms oils into a wax or solid that can be used to provide texture and help preserve it for artificially long periods. In the US cupcakes made with trans fats have stayed fresh for more than 20 years.

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), trans fats found in food are harmful and have no nutritional benefits. "They raise the type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Some evidence suggests that these trans fats may be worse than saturated fats," it says.

In February, the UK government launched a £372m programme aimed at working with the food industry to develop healthier food; thus ending the controversy over whether the 'traffic light' scheme or daily amount guidance is best. The challenge has been issued to food retailers and manufacturers.

UK Food and Drink Federation communications director Julian Hunt said the body was pleased that the government was prepared to forge a genuine partnership with industry, but that he sought acknowledgement that the industry had been reformulating products along healthier lines. Food manufacturers claim that at least £15bn worth of products have been 'tweaked' to reduce fat, sugar and salt.

The Local Government Association, which represents 400 councils in England and Wales, is also calling for much clearer information on packaged food and for restaurants and take-aways to provide ingredient information. Alcoholic drinks should also have clear content information on bottles, including maximum daily intake.

Social responsibility

But is this enough to increase social responsibility in the food processing area? Representatives at ozone perishable food specialists Olgear says it believes more could be done. It claims that monosodium glutamate, widely used to excite the taste buds, is known to cause nerve damage. It is present in foodstuffs in much larger quantities than appear on labels and hidden in other ingredients such as yeast extract, autolysed vegetable protein or hydrolysed vegetable protein.

“In February, the UK government launched a £372m programme aimed at working with the food industry to develop healthier food.”

The Centre for Food Policy at London's City University published a report on the health impact of dietary and food culture change in 2006, confirming the World Health Report 2002 which indicated that mortality and disability attributable to non-communicable diseases account for some 60% of all deaths.

The university's study reported on ten major food manufacturers, ten food retailers and five top food service companies – based on sales.

17 of the companies were found to have made statements on diet, physical activity and health but only six reported to have appointed people to senior posts responsible for health-related matters; Cadbury Schweppes, Kraft, Nestle, Ahold, McDonald's and Yum!.

Also, only six companies had policies specifically relating to children; Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Nestle, Unilever and Tesco.

Cargill, Nutrinova, DSM, Kemin and Fullwell Mill are examples of how ingredient manufacturers are helping food producers to improve their products in line with the quest.

What is being done?

Cargill launched a fat-replacement system, TexDesign, at the IFIA in Tokyo earlier this year. Its latest texturising proposition specifically targeting a key health concern in Japan, known as 'metabolic syndrome' – excessive internal fat, high blood pressure and high blood-sugar level. TexDesign replaces up to 50% of fat in a variety of bakery goods, without loss of taste; a major breakthrough considering bakery products are a major market segment affecting metabolic

Visitors to the Cargill booth were able to confirm the impressive results by tasting fat-reduced butter cakes and noting that the texture was as light and soft as traditionally made cakes. TexDesign is incorporated as a dry mix or cream to replace margarine or oil without the need to alter recipes or production methods.

Cargill also demonstrated at Food Ingredients China how the country's emerging dairy market need not lead to increased obesity. Products include Actistar for high-fibre low-fat yoghurts, and the stabiliser Protex to provide a higher-protein yoghurt.

Nutrinova manufactures a high-intensity sweetener, Sunett, which research indicates can be used totally or partially to replace sugar in yoghurts. The panel compared traditional strawberry yoghurt with one sweetened by Sunett and found that a 50/50 blend of Sunett with sucralose yielded a sugar-like taste in most aspects. A 30/70 blend of Sunett and aspartame yielded a similar profile but aspartame can have a negative impact on stability. Finally, the panel found that a three-way blend of Sunett, aspartame and sucralose resulted in the best 'no added sugar' taste.

“The industry can do more beyond what governments require and reach a new market altogether, the health-conscious eater.”

DSM has launched a range of yeast-derived taste potentiators called Sensarite, aimed at maintaining an authentic profile in bakery and dairy products reformulated to improve health and nutrition without loss of taste.

Sensarite is almost tasteless but its combination of proteins, amino acids and peptides enhances taste perception.

Kemin's Welcose helps maintain healthy glucose levels by combining chromium (from chromium propionate), an essential trace mineral, and potato extract, standardised to the active constituent proteinase inhibitor. It helps to avoid metabolic syndrome which leads to increased risk of coronary heart disease and other diseases related to plaque build-up in artery walls, such as stroke, peripheral vascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Fullwell Mill provides a range of naturally processed clean label ingredients, most of which are organic and free trade. Technical director Richard Friend says: "We also manufacture healthy snack bars which are high in dried fruit with low fat content, and pack our dried fruit and nut ingredients for retail sale."

These companies are proving that the industry can do more beyond what governments require and reach a new market altogether, the health-conscious eater.