EU-sponsored research seeks healthier processed foods

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The European Commission plans to combat many obesity and nutrition-linked lifestyle diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers, by reducing the content of sugar, salt or trans-fat in processed food without using additives.

As the obesity epidemic spreads across Europe, popular fast food such as frozen pizza continues to contain too much sugar, salt or fat. To try to curb the trend, the Commission set up a strategy for tackling the problem back in 2007.

But substitutes that replaces sugar, such as the low-calorie sweetener aspartame, have come under scrutiny themselves.

“We wanted to leave this track,” Matthias Kück, owner of the company Biozoon Food Innovations, told the European Research Media Centre.

Kück added that instead his comapany wanted to develop novel food processing technologies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in ready-to-eat meals without the help of additives.

“Using technological procedures, we want to achieve that the sensory perception of the new product is equivalent to that of conventional food products,” he said.  

Kück is also coordinator of the EU-funded project Pleasure. The project focuses specifically on products representing different groups of food such as sausages, mozzarella, pizza dough or tomato sauce.

Among the technological solutions explored, project scientists rely on biotechnological procedure, for which a patent is pending, involving enzymatic and fermentation processes to reduce sugar in apple juice.

Other approaches include processes involving high hydrostatic pressure or a new type of homogeniser. Both aim at improving the distribution of salt or fat and thus reducing these components by 30%.

According to EU regulation, a food product may only be labelled as “reduced” if the content of a certain nutrient is at least 30% less than in a similar product.

Consumer acceptance

Food product can be made palatable with less salt, experts say, if processing technologies ensure the better distribution of the ingredient.

“This leads people to perceive the food as more salty as it actually is,” Wolfgang Meyerhof, head of the department of molecular genetics at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam-Rehbrücke, said.

Fred van de Velde, a manager for ingredient technology at consultancy NIZO Food Research in Ede, the Netherlands, said that there's nothing new in experimenting with the texture of a food product.

However, since consumers have become more aware of additives, van de Velde said that avoiding additives while at the same time reducing fat, salt or sugar within processed food combines “two advantages”.

Meyerhof mentioned that it could become difficult to win consumer acceptance as fat-reduced products have been around for some time, but "nobody buys them".

"We do not even know exactly how we perceive salt or fat and therefore manipulation is difficult,” he stressed.

Timeline: 
  • 17. Sept.: Conference on obesity 'Eat well, drink well, move ... A small step for you, a big step for Europe' to be held in Brussels.
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