Fat Replacers: Part of a Bigger Picture

March 1, 1998

First published in Food Technology Magazine, March 1998. (Download PDF version)

Fats!! Low Fat!! Reduced Fat!! Fat Free!! American consumers are predisposed to believe that food containing less than the traditional amount of fat is healthy. Reducing dietary fat is the primary, and too often the only, dietary goal for many consumers. Consumers are all too often caught up in the news media moment ‘crises’ of their diet, their government, or the world. “Sometimes it seems as though dietary fat is the most important issue in everyone’s lives” (IFIC, 1997a). Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television health reports are filled with the dangers of eating too much high fat food. The overemphasized relationship among poor health, mortality, and fats in the diet promotes a ‘fear of fat’ and distracts consumers from the bigger picture portraying other nutritional issues key to diet, health, and lifestyle.

With all of the attention directed to fat, it would seem that Americans would be pretty well versed on fats in their foods and diets. “Nevertheless, misconceptions about fat—especially about reduced-fat foods and their role in the diet—pop up frequently in conversations and articles on health” (IFIC, 1997a). It is apparent that current regulations governing labels exclaiming low-fat, reduced-fat and fat-free foods help consumers sort out the quantities and types of fat in foods. However, consumers must also recognize that reducing the amount of fat in a food does not necessarily mean the food contains only a few calories or is automatically healthier and ‘good for you.’

“Nutritionists recognize that focusing on fat alone won’t achieve better overall nutrition, or even improved fat intake” (IFIC, 1997b). The ultimate goal of nutritionists is to encourage and educate consumers to:
• find more convenient and easy ways to achieve a balanced diet and more variety in their food choices;
• select and consume additional servings of fruits and vegetables (five to seven or even nine servings) that will improve variety and may replace consumption of dietary fats;
• and participate in regular physical activity. We recognize that the girth of Americans is growing even though consumption surveys suggest that fat and energy intake in the U.S. is decreasing, . . . but we sometimes prefer to ignore the evidence that physical activity and energy expenditure is declining even more remarkably. Regular exercise is a high priority to maintenance of a healthy lifestyle.

With encouragement from health and nutrition groups, as well as government agencies and the media, American consumers are choosing foods and beverages naturally low in fat such as skim milk, lean meats, and baked chips. “The food industry is quickly responding to consumer demand by offering an everincreasing variety of low-fat eating choices. These rich, creamy low-fat foods are the result of various new, and existing, food technologies used to replace some or most of the fat without sacrificing the taste and texture consumers desire” (Nabors, 1992). The ‘revolutionary’ development of unique food technologies and innovative uses for a wide variety of ingredients known as fat replacers are improving the taste and textural qualities of low-fat, reduced-fat, and fat-free foods.

The Scientific Status Summary (pp. 47–53), prepared by Casimir C. Akoh for IFT’s Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition, provides a convenient and readable guide to the functionality and physiological consequences of fat replacers. Discussions of the terminology and chemistry surrounding the advantages and potential uses of fat mimetics, structured lipids, and fat substitutes in foods is concise and easy to understand. The summary was prepared to assist food scientist and consumer recognition of fat replacers in foods, and the consequent changes in functionality that may be expected. “The ‘ideal fat replacer’ would recreate all the attributes of fat, while also significantly reducing fat and calorie content. Unfortunately, the ideal fat replacer does not exist. Consumers, however, can benefit from a variety of ingredients used as fat replacers to capitalize on the unique qualities of each in the most appropriate product applications” (Nabors, 1992).

Future developments in fat replacement will rely on the successes of ‘systems approaches’ to achieve acceptable functionality and sensory characteristics in reduced fat foods. Fat replacers, structured triglycerides, dietary fibers, proteins, and indigestible fat substitutes such as the chemically and functionally unique fat substitute olestra will provide the functionality, variety, and improved caloric balance in reduced-fat foods so desirable to nutritional well being.

Limiting dietary fat does not excuse the need for the basic nutrients: water, calories, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Fat replacement will not replace the need for dietary moderation and balanced nutrition or the need to get Americans moving. Fat replacers, however, are a logical step in the direction of improving nutritional health and well being (Hassel, 1993). Fat replacer technology and uses are improving, providing palatable alternative low-fat, reduced-fat, and fat-free foods, making compliance with reduced-fat diets easier and more enjoyable.

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