Saturated fat under the spotlight in Britain

Posted by Isobel Drake on 12th February 2009

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched a public health campaign to raise awareness of the health risks of eating too much saturated fat, with the food industry reporting that they are keen to continue improving in this area. The UK is currently eating 20% more saturated fat than UK Government recommendations, according to the Agency.

The campaign will promote a range of simple, positive and practical steps to help improve our health and reduce the risk of developing diet-related illness.

The FSA’s activity includes a graphic 40-second TV advertisement illustrating that saturated fat can come from a variety of everyday foods and shows what a build up of fatty deposits could do to the heart over time. The setting is a typical fridge in an average home. A jug of saturated fat is poured down the sink, overloading and blocking a kitchen pipe to vividly bring to life the message that too much saturated fat is bad for your heart.

The health message is supported by a series of print advertisements that show how easy it is to make simple yet effective changes to the way consumers shop, cook and eat.

The case for this campaign is highlighted by new FSA research, which revealed that nearly half of Brits (48%) thought that there was no need to worry about how much saturated fat they ate if, for example, they took regular exercise, were not overweight or ate lots of fruit and vegetables.

“People say they do know that saturated fat is bad for them but they don’t necessarily link it to heart disease and what they are eating. It’s important they make that connection, because heart disease is the UK’s number one killer – one in three of us will die as a result,” Tim Smith, Food Standards Agency Chief Executive, said. “Supermarkets and manufacturers have done some good work so that now when we’re shopping there is an increasing range of lower saturated fat foods available and better labelling, and we’d like to see more of this. It is important that we work together to increase the variety of healthier foods available and continue to address this important public health issue together.’

As well as support from major supermarkets, manufacturers and some caterers, the FSA is also backed by the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK, Heart UK, National Federation of Women’s Institute and NetMums, working to ensure that those at risk from heart disease are reached by this campaign.

Another FSA survey also revealed that many consumers are unaware of simple changes that can be made to reduce the amount of saturated fat:

* only a fifth (20%) of people choose to eat fish or poultry instead of red meat, only a quarter of people (24%) cut the white bits off the meat and a fifth (20%) choose meat with less white on it – all options for reducing the amount of saturated fat in our food
* not even a third (29%) of people take the skin off chicken/poultry before cooking (or buy it without the skin), which reduces the saturated fat content
* less than half (43%) of people regularly grill their meat, which is a healthier way of cooking, while a tenth still fry their meat for extra flavour (11%)
* almost two thirds (63%) of people think that healthier foods are more expensive than unhealthier foods, highlighting the need for practical, cost-effective tips

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) – which represents manufacturers – said their members were active in the pursuit of healthier foods.

“Members of the Food and Drink Federation are actively looking at how they can help consumers lower their intakes of saturated fat – and new data from independent market researchers TNS Worldpanel show there have been real changes in consumer purchasing behaviour in categories such as canned goods, frozen prepared foods, ice-cream and frozen puddings, savoury snacks; and yellow fats and milk,” Julian Hunt, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Director of Communications, said.

According to FDF, one of the key drivers for this change has been the reformulation efforts of manufacturers, for instance:

* Walkers has been using a special type of sunflower oil, called sunseed, for a number of years. This has enabled it to reduce the saturated fat content of standard Walkers crisps by 70% and by 80% for Quavers, Monster Munch, Squares and French Fries.
* McCain Foods has made significant progress in the reduction of saturated fat in its potato products through the use of sunflower oils and more efficient production techniques. As a result, McCain has reduced saturated fat across its range by over 70% in the past five years, and now has an average level of just 0.8% saturated fat across both its retail and foodservice lines.
* More recently, United Biscuits has reduced the saturated fat content of three of its leading McVitie’s biscuit brands: since November last year McVitie’s Digestives, McVitie’s Hob Nobs and McVitie’s Rich Tea have 50% less saturated fat.

“Changing the recipes of much-loved British brands so that they are lower in saturated fat is a complex task, as it needs to be done in a way that does not impact functionality, quality or price. But our members have been rising to this particular challenge for a number of years and are now leading the world when it comes to the reformulation of popular products – meeting consumer concerns about health in a way that doesn’t compromise on taste,” Mr Hunt concluded.