For the past decade, "fat" has ranked as the least desirable word on a food label, unless, of course, it is preceded by a modifier such as "low," "reduced" or "non." With the recent advent of new food labeling regulations that impose stricter criteria for using these modifiers, and that also require a display showing the percentage of calories from fat in the product, surely we should expect a continued focus on lowering fat among food product developers. Right?
Well, yes and no. Most food companies still cite fat reduction as a top priority of their research and development programs. And in some categories, such as bakery products, processed meats, and cheeses, the pace of introductions of reduced-fat products is quite strong. Further, the success of Nabisco's SnackWell's line of reduced-fat cookies and crackers demonstrates that consumers are still very interested in low-fat and nonfat products -- that is, of course, if they also taste good.
And there's the rub. Most reduced-fat products simply don't taste nearly as good as their full-fat counterparts. After a period of trying to get used to them, many of us give up and drift back to our old habits. As a result, sales of reduced-fat and nonfat products have stalled, and new introductions of such products are declining. It's been reported that "reduced-fat" and "low-fat" claims on new products fell by an astonishing one-third (from 1,257 to 847) between 1992 and 1993.
This trend spells bad news for food ingredient companies, many of whom have emphasized fat-replacer ingredients as an important element of their strategies to add value to their traditional ingredient lines. At last count, more than 20 such ingredients were being marketed in the United States, each claiming to bring superior functional performance in reduced-fat formulations for one or more food product categories. Some of the best known of these illustrate the diverse range of approaches to developing fat-replacer ingredients: NutraSweet's Simplesse is made from milk protein; FMC's Avicel is microcrystalline cellulose; Staley's Stellar is a cornstarch-based ingredient; Avebe's Paselli SA2 is made from potato starch; National Starch's N-Oil is a tapioca dextrin; the U.S. Department of Agriculture-developed Oatrim is a hydrolyzed oat flour, and Hercules' Slendid is made from pectin.
So far, the ability of many of these fat replacers to capture significant market share has fallen woefully short of expectations, demonstrating the difficulty of convincing food manufacturers that the claimed value is commensurate with the increased price. If the developers of fat replacers encountered such difficulties during the years of high levels of new-product introductions, then the current downturn may create a major shakeout.
All the fat replacers mentioned above share one thing in common: They were developed from ingredients already in common use in the food supply, with an eye toward minimizing the regulatory approval requirements. Another strategy -- much bolder and even riskier -- is to develop new molecules that behave like fat, but lack its calories and adverse health implications. Procter & Gamble's olestra is the most famous and most advanced of these new molecules. Other companies -- Frito-Lay, Atlantic Richfield, Nabisco and Unilever -- have made major investments in this arena. If any of these compounds are ever approved, they offer the potential for major quality improvement in reduced-fat foods, which may be what it takes to get consumers back on track with healthy eating.
C. Gail Greenwald is vice president and managing director of technology consulting for Arthur D. Little Inc., Cambridge, Mass.