Cutting the fat from a formula is not necessarily a problem, but having consumers enjoy the products as much as the full-fat version can be. In the early 1990s, when many consumers began searching for no- and low-fat alternatives, product manufacturers experienced a disconnect between understanding fat's purpose in weight loss and understanding fat's purpose in food.

“The problem with low-fat/no-fat products in the early 90s was that, although the flavor may have been okay, the texture or mouthfeel of the products left a lot to be desired,” says Joshua Brooks, vice president of sales at a hydrocolloid gum company.

Disappearing Acts

Many companies unnecessarily tossed out the baby with the bath water when they designed no-fat products. Now, in 2006, some companies are finally learning that fat cannot be completely eliminated and that, in order to replace the fat, one must first replace fat's purpose.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting total fat intake to no more than 20%-35% of calories, and saturated fat to no more than 10%.

“Despite more than 20 years of work in removing/reducing fats, efforts to understand and recreate the eating experience that fat delivers in a formulation have been only partially successful,” says Marshall Fong, director of custom market solutions at a company that markets starch-based fat replacers.

Fat provides creaminess in ice cream and mouthfeel in salad dressings and gravies. It gives bite, like the gristle of a burger, and assists in the layered structure of baked goods such as croissants. Fat disperses and coats flavors in and/or on meats and vegetables. “Take these textures out of your product, and it is very noticeable organoleptically,” says Brooks.

“Recreating the consumer experience of fat in formulations often requires a systems-based approach wherein some specially tailored ingredients and some traditional ingredients will be used in combination to address the broad range of issues that come into play,” advises Fong.

Fat can be replaced with specially designed fat-, starch-, protein-, or fiber-based ingredients as well as stabilizers such as gums. “Since these ingredients on their own don't always perform as reasonable fat replacers, formulators realized they had to create ingredient systems,” adds Triveni Shukla, PhD, vice president of technology development at a company that specializes in fat replacers from amorphous cellulose. “None of the systems usually will have the same efficacy and functional equivalence from category to category.” In other words, where a combination of microcrystalline cellulose and starch may be useful to replace fat in baked goods, its lack of ability to disperse easily might cause a burden in beverage applications.

Fong suggests that by making reduced-fat product development more science than art, manufacturers can achieve efficiency, predictive capability and improved speed to market within the context of reducing overall costs.

“A 'texture dynamics' approach can energize the reformulation of revised-fat or reduced-fat foods,” says Fong. This experience in texturization can help food formulators determine the right ingredients and processing conditions needed to deliver specific textures, understand the two-way linkage between technical specifications and sensory experience, and also identify segmented consumer preferences of textures in food applications, Fong offers.

Lightly Starched

Some 22% of all new product introductions require textural solutions, says Fong. Starch provides more than 40% of texture solutions in products on the market today.

“In the drive to create 'sensorially' pleasing, reduced-fat consumer food products, starch is an exceptional tool for the formulator,” he adds. It functions both as a fat mimetic, replacing the consumer experience of fat in a formulation, and as a functional ingredient, helping the new systems perform the way consumers expect.

“Consumers want to see ingredients on their labels that they recognize, and that they perceive as wholesome--the kind of ingredients they might find in their own kitchen cupboard,” advises Fong. There are new functional “native” starches on the marketplace that offer the functionality of their chemically modified cousins, but which are viewed more favorably by the consumer, he says.

Starches from corn, rice, potato, sago and tapioca offer a broad starting point to achieve an optimal sensory experience. To that, add also the decades of experience many companies already have in processing starch bases. This advantage delivers an incredibly broad array of ingredients that can be fine-tuned to meet subtle nuances in perception. Furthering this trend, there now are flours that provide both increased functionality--by better tolerating processing conditions and delivering on texture.

No Gags for Gums

Depending on processing methods and the desired characteristics of a finished product, some gums can be used by themselves as individual components. Others do better in combination with other gums, starches or stabilizers.

For example, cellulose gum can be very effective in low-fat chocolate coatings for confectionery applications and low-fat caramel toppings, either by itself or combined with carrageenans. “The creamy texture provided will be an excellent fat mimic,” says Brooks.

“The good thing about gums is that they do not mask flavor like many starches. There is a cleaner flavor release,” states Brooks. Gums also are incorporated at much lower usage levels than starches. Lower usage will keep the flavor profile intact. For example, konjac, a gum used in Asia for thousands of years, is used as a coating agent for flavor ingredients in order to hold in and protect flavors during cooking.

In U.S. manufacturing of veggie burgers or other meat analogs, konjac is very effective in holding the patty together, as well as creating a gristle-type bite, because of its gelling properties. A system of carrageenan, xanthan and pectin in a low-fat protein smoothie will suspend particulate matter and provide the body, creamy texture or thickness typically created with fat. The carrageenan will react with the protein, the xanthan will provide a smooth-flowing body and the pectin will protect the protein from denaturizing.

“Too much viscosity may result in creating a product that feels artificial to the tongue, or gummy,” says Brooks. When hoping to achieve a subtler mouthfeel in a reduced-oil salad dressing, one might require a stabilizing system that creates a mouthfeel with less viscosity. Furthermore, it is important that the gum in this system is thixotropic, so that the salad dressing will thin out when shaken and then cling to the food. Xanthan blends work well in such a scenario.

Pulling Fat from a Hat

Sucrose polyester blends, also called olestra, are different from other fat replacers in that they are the first fat-based fat replacers that entirely replicate all of the uses of fat, including frying.

“This means that, for the first time, salty snack foods fried in olestra taste like their full-fat counterparts but have substantially fewer calories and little or no fat,” states Samir Verma, an olestra commercial manager.

Unlike the oil in regular fried foods, olestra contributes zero calories to food, because its structure prevents digestive enzymes from breaking it down. Olestra is not absorbed by the body when eaten, and it travels through the body unchanged like other poorly absorbed foods, such as high-fiber bran.

Currently, olestra is approved for use in savory snacks (chips, crackers, etc.) and for ready-to-heat popcorn. Fat-Free Pringles and Frito-Lay Light branded chips have been on the market since 1998 and have sold more than three billion servings using olestra as the frying oil.

“Every day, consumers buy more than one million servings of olestra products, allowing them to eliminate the associated fat and calories from their diet,” says Verma. As with other fats, it is important to optimize formula attributes like particulate size to ensure optimal flavor display.

From a purely technical standpoint, olestra works in a variety of foods, both in 100% formulas or blended with other healthy fats. For example, one can make a compound shortening by blending monounsaturated healthy oils (like olive) with olestra to acquire the taste and texture of traditional hard shortenings, yet these products will not contain trans or saturated fats. Ingredients used in full-fat formulas can be used directly with olestra, with minimal reformulation.

Alakazam! Arabinoxylan!

“Everybody is saying Americans should be consuming more fiber and less fat. Highly refined amorphous cellulose helps consumers to appropriate more fiber in foods than any other fiber-bearing fat replacers,” claims Shukla.

Amorphous cellulose from highly refined corn bran acts as a fat replacer that also has 80% soluble gellable cellulose fiber and 20% arabinoxylan--the soluble portion of dietary fiber naturally found in the bran and hulls of cereal grains and legumes.

“It is different and more unique than any other fat replacement ingredient I've seen,” says Shukla. “Our process converts crystalline cellulose fiber into amorphous cellulose, analogous to conversion of native starches to pre-gelatinized starches,” says Shukla. Crystalline cellulose fibers do not immediately gel in water, whereas amorphous cellulose fibers gel instantly, by extensive hydrogen bonding with water.

“Amorphous cellulose can achieve the consistency of any product in the supermarket aisles,” says Shukla. Although the product cannot be used as a frying oil, it reduces fat and oil absorption in fried foods when formulated into their batters and breadings. It also helps to reduce fractures in low-moisture foods vulnerable to breakage, such as snack chips, cookies and crackers.

“The Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997 came into being after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reported that whole-grain flours, when used at levels of at least 51% in a food formula, do provide acceptable levels of dietary fiber,” reminds Shukla. “Not only can amorphous cellulose be added to whole-grain foods, it can add 1.5g of fiber to any food, from salad dressings and creams to cakes, cookies and cheese powder.”

Some Better than None

Shukla suggests that manufacturers traditionally have added fat to foods not only for sensorial pleasure, but also for delivery of fat-soluble vitamins, water activity management, texture and consistency control, appropriate heat transfer and flow in mass production plants.

Some amorphous cellulose fat replacers reduce fat or oil by 40%-60%, without any negative impacts on such requirements. Some additional advantages of fat include no shrinkage in meat products, moisture retention in intermediate-moisture foods and added production capacity with minimal capital expense, informs Shukla.

Mostly, the difference between low-fat and full-fat products is a variation of texture. However, a manufacturer needs to account for the look, taste and even the sound of fat--for example, as it sizzles on a grill.

Most times, the solution involves fat replacement with an ingredient blend that evokes the same consistency as the product in question. “The industry changes gears behind the fat problem every year and, still, we haven't succeeded,” observes Shukla. But he suggests that one thing is for sure. Considering humanity's penchant for fat and the number of full-fat products on grocery shelves, there will never again be a demand for zero-fat food in the market place.