Fat replacers: fighting obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer

Although the term ‘fat replacers’ is commonly used and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved food additives such as olestra, polydextrose and carrageenan are known worldwide, obesity cases have nearly tripled since 1975. According to the World Health Organisation, over 1.9 billion adults (ie, aged 18 and above) were classified as overweight in 2016 – of these, over 650 million were obese.

Faced with the urgent need to modify dietary habits, are there potential alternatives to fat that do not compromise on flavour? Attempts have been made to discover an ideal fat replacer that tastes and functions like conventional fat without any adverse health effects.

Patent landscape
IP filings in this technology domain have increased at an average rate of 4.3% per year since 2000, with most patents filed in the United States and China. However, while Chinese filings increased after 2012, the number of US patents has steadily declined.

Many industries have collaborated with Chinese universities and institutes to file patents in this technology domain, including:

  • Nanjing Agricultural University;
  • Huaihai Institute of Technology;
  • Jiangnan University; and
  • Guangdong Bosun Health Food Research Development Centre.

In 2017 several new entrants emerged in China, including:

  • Ningxia Baota Chemical Centre Laboratory;
  • Guangzhou Haodao Food;
  • Hunan TRS Meat Product;
  • Yancheng Dingyi Food; and
  • University Nanjing Finance and Economics.

Patent filings indicate that research has mainly focused on fatty acid and carbohydrate-based fat replacers for reducing the fat content in baked goods, confectionery, processed meat, dairy-based products, frozen desserts, convenience foods, beverages, sauces, dressings and spreads and processed meat. Patents mainly focused on fat replacers such as:

  • sorbitol;
  • inulin;
  • sucrose esters;
  • polyols;
  • methyl-cellulose;
  • carrageenan; and
  • glucomannan.

Among all fat replacers, carbohydrate-based fat replacers have always attracted research, especially starch, polyols and fibres (particularly pectin and inulin). Generally, patents have focused on decreasing fat content and increasing fibre content, while maintaining good organoleptic properties and heat stability.

Before 2000, a significant number of patent filings in this domain disclosed low-calorie fat substitutes such as sucrose fatty acid esters, inulin, carrageenan and emulsifiers (eg, mono and di-glycerides, propylene glycol monoesters, lactic acid ester of mono-glycerides or a mixture of these).

Between 2001 and 2010, research focused on baked goods such as biscuits, cakes and yeast-leavened dough-based products, while patent filings covered solutions for:

  • replacing trans fats; and
  • stabilising mixtures (eg, edible oils and low-density carbohydrates).

Between 2011 and 2015, many patent filings covered ways to reduce the fat content in dairy products (especially milk), including the production of low-cost human milk fat substitutes that are structurally similar to breast milk triglycerides. Patent disclosures included:

  • fat substitutes (eg, inulin);
  • cassia gum;
  • starch-based fat substitutes (eg, rice starch);
  • low-fat sausages;
  • processing methods (eg, the de-esterification of pectins in vegetable fibre for maintaining the esterification of methoxyl pectins at a level of at least 50%).

Recent advances have been made in the production of fat substitutes which contain ingredients such as pomelo peel, citrus peel, pectin and oligodextran-based fat replacers that have fewer calories. Generally, research is focused on:

  • reducing manufacturing costs;
  • lowering the calorie content of food products;
  • removing substances that add no nutritional value;
  • mitigating any adverse effects of fat replacers, including;
    • abdominal cramping;
    • loose stools; and
    • coronary heart disease;
  • improving the properties of fat replacers, including:
    • fat-mimicking organoleptic properties;
    • nutritional value;
    • digestibility (eg, long-chain polymeric fat substitutes);
  • improving the stability of fat replacers, including:
    • low and high-temperature resistance;
    • prolonging storage periods to sustain texture and flavour.

The most active players in this domain are:

  • Unilever;
  • Procter & Gamble;
  • Nestle;
  • Kraft Foods;
  • Fuji Oil;
  • Cargill; and
  • General Foods.

Considering the urgent need for further R&D in fat replacement technologies and the ongoing search for ideal fat replacers in a host of everyday products, the number of patent filings in this technology domain is relatively low.

While new technologies and innovations are rapidly emerging from the robust science supporting the food industry, existing technologies such as 3D printing could revolutionise the industry further through enhanced creativity, customisability and sustainability.

There is considerable scope for key industry players to strengthen their IP portfolios and researchers to develop fat replacers to supplant or minimise fats without affecting taste and with no adverse health effects.

Until then, the following questions must be addressed:

  • What would be the cumulative effect of using fat replacers in multiple food products and how would they interact with medication or other food ingredients?
  • How will key industry players in this technology domain ensure consumer acceptance?
  • What parameters should exist for approving fat-replacing products such as olestra (which, despite FDA approval, has severe side effects, including gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, loose stools and abdominal cramps)?

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of IAM's co-published content. Read more on Insight

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