November, 2023

Reducing Salt, Sugar and Fats in Food: is it possible?

Many of the food products currently available in stores are high in fats, sugar, and salt, and are defined as “high-caloric density” foods. These foods provide a large amount of energy per gram, contributing to the increase in health problems such as obesity. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), obesity at global level has almost doubled since 1980, partly due to the consumption of high energy density foods, the lack of physical exercise, and changes in urban living habits.

To tackle obesity, the article published in 2023 by Nesta gives an analysis conducted on Great Britain, where it is estimated than even a 10% reduction in the consumption of calories in certain product categories (e.g. sweets, cakes, biscuits, savoury snacks, sauces, ready-made meals, etc….) could lead to a reduction of 38 calories per person, which in turn would mean a reduction of 1 billion calories per day over the entire population of Great Britain.

The cost and availability of access to healthier foods, however, is still an issue. A more practical solution would be to modify the composition of foods that are rich in sugar, salt, and fat, and would allow people to reduce their calorie intake without having to make any drastic changes to their diet or purchase “premium” products that are promoted as being healthy or having a “low content of”.

The ”baddies”: salt, sugar and fats

It is unfortunately not that simple to reduce components such as salt, sugar, and fats as they play an important role in the foods, and reducing them might impair the taste and consistency of the product, or make it less stable. On the other hand, some alternatives are becoming gradually more widespread in certain food products. The article (Global nutritional challenges of reformulated food: A review, ) makes a precise analysis of the various challenges faced when reformulating products with a high content of salt, sugar, or fats.

Salt, for instance, is essential for our organism but we often consume more than we need. In the food sector, salt has a well-defined role: it aids fermentation and leavening in bread, improving gluten stability. In cheese, salt affects the quality and aroma, and improves the overall consistency of the product. In many products, salt also plays a crucial role as a preservative, sometimes preventing the growth of undesirable microorganisms, as in the case of cheese, for example. In spite of this, there are several alternatives to salt that make it possible to reduce the amount of salt in food products. These include potassium chloride (KCl), known for its antimicrobial properties against pathogens, although its use is limited due to its taste that tends to be bitter. The use of phosphates as an alternative to salt is also being evaluated as they help in the preservation of meat preparations, with an acidifying action. In addition, there are alternatives to salt that influence taste, such as spices or flavour enhancers.

With regard to fats, the food industry is going through a transition phase. On the one hand, consumers are increasingly concerned about the health effect of saturated fats, while on the other, companies are placing greater focus on the use of unsaturated fats, which are recognised as an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet and can help prevent cardiovascular diseases. In addition, with the ongoing growth in population and climate change, we are faced with the problem of a potential shortage of animal and vegetable oils and fats worldwide. Fats also serve different roles in food, greatly affecting texture and consistency, and making it more palatable. Several companies and start-ups are currently working to develop alternatives to fats, concentrating on new sources, such as seaweed, and harnessing new technologies, such as cell cultures and fermentation. As for plant-based alternatives, one example is the oil derived from seaweed, which is rich in unsaturated fats and omega-3, making it an ideal plant-based alternative to oil from fish and other marine sources. On the downside, its high cost of production by means of algaculture still makes marketing this product a challenge. The oil extracted from avocados is another interesting option due to its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants, as well as its high melting point, which makes it suitable for high-temperature cooking.

Sugars play a dual role in food: they add sweetness and act as a preservative or as “bulk”. Various strategies have been developed in an attempt to reduce or replace sugar, such as the use of high-density sweeteners to reproduce sweetness, and the use of additives to improve colour, taste and preservation, and the use of hydrocolloids or dietary fibres as bulk. Alternatives include artificial sugars such as Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K), Advantame, Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, and Sucralose, but may not be readily accepted by consumers due to a lack of familiarity with the ingredient. Sugars made from alcohol (polyols), such as Erythritol, Isomalt, Lactitol, Maltitol, Sorbitol, and Xylitol, are very similar to traditional sugar in taste, but they can be difficult to digest, so much so that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated that excessive consumption can lead to digestive disorders such as bloating and diarrhoea. In addition to this, alternatives such as erythritol or aspartame are still under scrutiny in relation to health problems linked to their consumption. Plant-based stevia is well known and is required in smaller quantities to achieve the same sweetness. It is also calorie-free and has a low glycaemic index but stevia also has an after-taste very similar to liquorice, due to the stevoside molecule, which makes this after-taste difficult to mask. Fruit is also often used as an alternative to sugar to add sweetness to the taste, especially in certain product categories such as snacks, cakes, biscuits or protein bars. Research is also focusing on more innovative alternatives developed by start-ups, including sweet proteins extracted by fermentation, although the commercialisation of these new alternatives is currently still limited by costs and industrial processes.

To conclude, we can say that the reduction of salt, sugar and fat in foods is a complex challenge, with important implications for the technical properties of processing, product quality and safety, shelf life, sensory properties, and consumer acceptance. Challenges related to the labelling of reformulated products can also pose obstacles for food companies, as it may require a longer list of ingredients, or a change in claims or positioning of the products themselves. In spite of this, reformulating products may be a successful strategy to moderate calorie intake, allowing more consumers to adopt healthier eating habits without excessive restrictions.