Although fat replacers are common today and products like olestra, polydextrose and carrageenan have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use as food additives worldwide, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

According to World and Health organization (WHO), more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight in 2016. Of these, over 650 million were obese. Most of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight and obese kills more people than being underweight. 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2016; while over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.

Does it mean that there is an urgent need to modify dietary habits? What could be the potential alternative to fat that can provide flavor of full-fat counterparts?

 To answer these questions, it is important to take a look at the previous attempts that had been taken to search an elusive “ideal fat replacer” that tastes and functions like conventional fat, without any potential adverse health impact. Recent IP filings in this technology domain show that the number of patent filings has increased at an average growth rate of 4.3% per year from 2000, with maximum number of patents filed by the US and followed by China.

Surprisingly, China started supplying bulk of the inventions in this technology domain after the year 2012, while there is a steep decrease in the number of patents from the US.

Many industries have collaborated with Chinese universities and institutes like Nanjing Agricultural University, Huaihai Institute of Technology, Jiangnan University, Guangdong Bosun Health Food Research Development Center etc., and filed patents in this technology domain.

In 2017, several new entrants such as Ningxia Baota Chemical Center Laboratory, Guangzhou Haodao Food, Hunan TRS Meat Product, Yancheng Dingyi Food, University Nanjing Finance & Economics etc., emerged from China. Through the analysis of all patents filed in the year, it can be inferred that researchers mainly focused on fatty-acid based and carbohydrate-based fat replacers for reducing the fat content in bakery & confectionery products, processed meat and dairy & frozen desserts. Notable ones are non-starch based sugarless sausage and milk. The patents mainly focus on fat replacers such as sorbitol, inulin, sucrose esters, polyols, methyl-cellulose, carrageenan and glucomannan.

A patent landscape of the domain shows that significant efforts have been made in the manufacturing of fat substitutes for various food products which include but are not limited to bakery & confectionery products, dairy-based products, frozen desserts, convenience foods & beverages, sauces, dressings & spreads and processed meat. Among all fat replacers, carbohydrate-based fat replacers such as starch, polyols and fibers (in particular, pectin and inulin) have always been an area of interest for researchers. All in all, the patents mainly focused on decreasing the fat content, while maintaining good organoleptic properties, heat stability and increased-fiber content. Before 2000, a significant number of patent filings disclosed the low-calorie fat substitutes such as sucrose fatty acid esters, inulin, carrageenan, emulsifiers such as mono and di-glycerides, propylene glycol monoesters, lactic acid ester of mono-glycerides or a mixture of these. Between years 2001-10, the patents provided solutions for problems like replacing trans-fat, improving the stability of mixtures which comprise edible oils, low-density carbohydrate, etc. Researchers were highly focused on bakery products like biscuits, cakes, yeast leavened dough based-bakery products etc. during this period.

From 2011-15, many patents had been filed for reducing the fat content in dairy products, especially milk. Inventions disclosing the method of producing human milk fat substitutes having a structure similar to that of breast milk triglycerides at low cost were published. More than half of the patents in this 5 year frame focused on fat substitutes like inulin, cassia gum and starch-based fat substitutes such as rice starch. Processing methods such as de-esterification of pectins in the vegetable fiber for maintaining the degree of esterification of methoxyl pectins were also the focus of majority of the publications. Recent advancements have been made in the production of fat substitute which contains ingredients like pomelo peel, citrus peel with pectin, oligodextran-based fat replacers that are lower in calories.

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Overall, the major focus of research lies in:

  • Reducing the manufacturing cost
  • Reducing the content of calories in food products
  • Reducing the content of substances that do not add to the nutritional value
  • Mitigating the adverse effects of fat replacers especially:
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Loose stools
    • Coronary heart diseases
  • Improving the properties of fat replacers:
    • Fat mimicking organoleptic properties
    • Nutritional deficiencies
    • Digestibility of fat substitutes (such as long-chain polymeric fat substitutes) etc
  • Improving the stability of fat replacers:
    • At low and/or high temperatures
    • For prolonged storage periods and thus mitigating the problems such as food texture roughness, flavor descending etc.

The most active players in the domains are:

It is evident from the data that the number of patent filings is not significant compared to the need of research and development in this technology domain. The quest for “ideal fat replacers” in bakery & confectionery products, dairy-based products and convenience foods & beverages is still under way. With the advent of new technologies every day, there is massive scope for key industry players to strengthen their portfolio and for researchers to find solutions that can potentially replace or minimize the fat without affecting taste while minimizing any adverse effect on the consumer’s health. For example, technologies like 3D printing that have been around for decades can bring a breakthrough in today’s food industry through its better creativity, customizability and sustainability.

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Until then, the following questions need to be addressed surrounding fat replacers:

 

  • What would be the cumulative impact of using fat replacers in multiple food products and their potential interaction with medications and other food ingredients?
  • How will the key industry players in this technology domain deal with the consumer acceptance?
  • What should be the parameters for granting approval to fat-replacing products like “Olestra,” which is FDA approved and has severe side-effects such as gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and abdominal cramps?

 

-The Life Sciences and Editorial Team

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