Since 2005 United Biscuits (UB) has renovated its snacks and biscuit recipes to reduce the levels of saturated fat, a project given high priority by senior management but which has carried a high price tag.
Over the last five years the biscuit and snack manufacturer has spent some £20m on health and nutrition initiatives, including removing artificial additives like flavour enhancers, colours and flavours, changing pack sizes, and changing fat profiles of products. UB brands contained 11,000 tonnes less saturated fat in 2010 than they did in 2005.
Alice Cadman, head of strategic projects, told FoodNavigator.com that efforts to reduce saturated fats have centred on switching to oils with healthier fat profiles such as sunflower oil instead of palm oil.
UB worked on its snack range first because it was more “obvious technology” to change the oil is used in the processing rather an ingredient in products. It then looked at how it could cross over the approach to its biscuits. This, Cadman said, was “significantly more challenging”.
It did not change any of the associated ingredients at all, but, with the exception of the oils, stuck to the same recipes. All the work was done in-house by UB experts and the biscuits work took three years from start to the first launches of Digestive, Rich Tea and Hob Nobs with lower saturated fat in 2009.
The reason the work took so long was that, after hitting on the right oil blends, the renovated products had to be “checked out with consumers fairly robustly to be sure none of the changes were received negatively,” Cadman said, adding that it was clear from the testing that consumers were welcoming of the initiative.
It also takes a long time to ensure the shelf life is not affected, and to make capital expenses in new factory equipment for the new processes and recipes.
Overall fats first
Nestlé, which has used its own nutritional profiling system since 2004 and claims to have the lowest saturated fat in several categories, has taken a similar approach to UB but places more emphasis on overall fat content.
A spokesperson said: “The approach would be to reduce fats in the first place and if the fat is required for taste/texture, then a healthier fat would be used as a replacement…if there is a possibility of reducing [fat and saturated fat] further, we would reformulate.”
He agreed that it is a long, complex process with no overnight results. “There is no typical time frame as it depends on the extent of the ingredients being reformulated and what is trying to be achieved as well as taking into account the shelf life of the product for keeping tests. It can take years.”
In addition to these one-off outlays, UB now shoulders higher formulation costs as unsaturated fats are more expensive and the company has not passed on the difference to consumers.
Cadman said that there were “a few gulps at some of the bills”, although “all health and nutrition initiatives are seen as very important and are supported at very senior level”.
The company has set out its commitment for the next five years, and there is still work to do. It has released a set of pledges for further saturated fat reductions by 2015.
“The motivation is that we really believe this is what our consumers want,” Cadman said.
In addition, in 2008 the UK Food Standards Agency introduced recommendations for reducing saturated fats in some product categories (although public health has since been transferred from the FSA to the Department of Health).