The Scotland-based team has produced modified proteins that they said easily break down into micro-particles and therefore closely mimic the behaviour of fats during food manufacture.
Substituting fat with protein has been largely restricted to products such as yogurts, milk and cream, according to the research team at the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University. In other products such as cheeses and cakes, it has typically been less successful “because proteins could not mimic the behaviour of fats closely enough”.
By studying the proteins’ chemical structure, the team has developed a detailed understanding of how they behave when they are heated or undergo other food manufacturing processes. This has provided the basis for modifying proteins to be used as effective fat substitutes.
Dr Steve Euston of Heriot-Watt University, who led the project, said: "We've paved the way for the development of modified proteins that, by closely mimicking fat, can be used to produce a wider range of appealing low-fat foods."
He told FoodNavigator that now they are looking at how to control the modified proteins in foods such as cakes, rather than relying on “trial and error” and therefore shorten the time it takes to develop a low-fat product.
In terms of health and wellness, Euston added: “If manufacturers can replace fat in staple foods such as bread, cakes and baked goods it would have a bigger impact.”
The team claims it has achieved “particularly promising” results in using proteins to replace eggs, a common gelling agent in bakery products.
They are also developing a computer model to help food manufacturers pinpoint the optimum level of protein-for-fat replacement for particular products.
The research, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will now be taken forward by commercial partner Nandi Proteins. Products incorporating this protein technology are not currently on the market according to Dr Lydia Campbell, chief technology officer for Nandi Proteins.
However, she said there is a company in Holland that has already licenced it for ice-cream and yoghurts and Nandi is now working with a UK company using it for making cakes.
She anticipates products being on shop shelves within a year to 18 months.
Nandi develops technology and scientific expertise to improve the functional properties of proteins in food manufacturing and nutrition.
A study published earlier this year found that micro-particles of whey protein could help cut calories in food products by replacing starch and fat in reduced-calorie sauces and dressings.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, in collaboration with ConAgra foods, said that the particles increased the lightness and viscosity of products, thereby mimicking some of the desirable characteristics of fat droplets.