Consumers take a great interest in food ingredients, and value products that are healthy or are seen to be making efforts to improve nutritional value.
As this demand for healthy products grows, many food producers are being forced to develop new low-fat products. However, the challenges associated with reducing fats in foods are complicated as fats play many roles in food, including adding texture, structure and flavour.
However, according to experts from NIZO Food Research, by understanding the specific functional roles of fat in a product, manufacturers can begin to develop solutions that use alternative ingredients – such as proteins – to provide the same functions.
Speaking with FoodNavigator, Dr. Thom Huppertz and Dr Fred van de Velde from the NIZO Protein Research Centre said that by understanding what fats do in a food system, alternative ingredients can be matched for function and used to replace fat.
No ‘golden bullet’
“The main challenge is in that fat has multiple functions in food, so if you want to replace fat in a food, you need to focus on each function separately … It is not possible to come up with one ‘golden bullet’ which will replace all of fats functionalities in one ingredient,” said Dr van de Velde, Senior Scientist of Ingredient Functionality.
Van de Velde explained that instead manufacturers should “look at your product and try to unravel what the functions of fat in that product are, and then try to come up with strategies to use other ingredients, for example proteins, to replace those functions in the product.”
According to Dr Huppertz, Senior Scientist in Dairy Technology and Ingredients, the roles that fat plays in food products vary greatly dependent on the product.
He explained that only by looking at different examples of food models can the industry begin to gain insight into the key roles that fats play, noting that in a cheese model, the role that fats play in texture is very important in ‘breaking’ the structure of the cheese to soften it.
“If you take fat out then it can get very tough and quite rubbery. So you need to find a fat replacer that will have the same role as the fat there in breaking the structure,” said Huppertz
“On the other side, of course, fat has a very important flavour function in a cheese also, so that would have to be looked at separately, because it is very unlikely that you could find a single replacer for the fat that performs both well for both the flavour and the texture roles,” he added.
“Within our protein centre, we look at making fat replacers on a protein basis,” said Huppertz,
“What we try to always do is understand what functions the fat plays in a product and then use that knowledge to come up with an idea of what a good fat replacer could be,” he said.
Huppertz told FoodNavigator that in ice cream, fat is important from a flavour perspective, but also for providing creaminess by stabilising the air bubbles in the ice cream.
“Recently we developed protein replacers for ice creams and related products that work to still stabilise the air bubbles and thicken the ice cream mix so you get the same mouth feel as you would normally get in a full fat ice cream,” he said.
Using this technique, van de Velde explained that the team at NIZO have recently produced a fully fat free ice cream, “which has a very good mouth feel and texture, and that is very good in terms of acceptability to consumers.”
He said that although the new research was currently unpublished, recent tests with consumers, showed the protein based fat replacers in the zero fat ice cream to perform “much better than a traditional low fat ice cream, and very close to a full fat ice cream.”
A case of perception?
The NIZO scientists explained that another way of reducing the fat in a product is to boost the perception of fat that is currently in a product.
“This can again be referred to in terms of fat functionality,” they said. “If we can increase the functionality of the fat that is in a product then we can reduce the amount of fat present without affecting the product.”
“For example, if you have a solution where the fat in the product is twice as active in its functions, then you can effectively use half the original amount of fat,” they added.
van de Velde explained that an example of using increased functionality of fats is in emulsions for sauces.
“[In a sauce,] when you put the product in your mouth, some of the fat droplets coalesce to make a film and give a coating on your palate. This gives the product a creamier feel perception,” explained van de Velde
“With this in mind you can design a product that has less stable fat droplets, which form this sort of coating much easier, and give a more creamy perception than an emulsion with very stable droplets … This way, if you can find a balance between good shelf life stability, but a high instability when in the mouth, then the levels of fat can be reduced without having a negative effect on the perceptions of the product,” he said.