The Big Fat Debate

The Big Fat Debate has concluded. Who won? Four eminent scientists gave us the pearls of their collective wisdom; with only 5 min each in which to do so, the messages had to be concise and clear. The aim, stated by the chair, Kate Halliwell from Food and Drink Federation, was to cut through the hype and noise on fats, to the key messages that can help inform on fats, within a food formulation and public health context. This early evening debate and networking reception was the second event, organised by IFST’s Food Science & Nutrition Group in association with Food Matter’s Live. 

The first speaker, Prof. Bruce Griffin, from University of Surrey, gave an introduction to the metabolism of fats, and told us why, despite the headlines,  “butter is not back”.  He wasn’t saying we should remove all fats from our diets, indeed he encouraged the consumption of certain fats, and supported the current guidelines relating to saturated fats in the diet. However he noted that studies that found no link to cardiovascular disease, failed to account for the association between disease and LDL cholesterol, an intermediate in the causal pathway affected by more than just saturated fat intake. He advocated a whole food approach to assessing diet, not just individual components.

Dr Rob Winwood, from DSM Nutritional Products, then took up the baton to provide some of the benefits of fat consumption.  Focusing on the essentiality of certain fats, he noted that many textbooks wrongly listed essential fatty acids, due to the use of mouse studies to underpin the classification. However some candidates are truly essential, in particular the marine omega 3 fatty acids for the brain, which is composed of around 60% fat.

The final 2 speakers, Geoff Talbot, aka The Fat Consultant and Lindsey Bagley from Eureka, described the role of fats in foods and their use in formulation. Fats give us many of the benefits we enjoy in certain foods, from their ability to impart specific melting, visual, flavour and textural characteristics. We rely on fat’s heat transfer properties when cooking, its crystallization properties for glossiness, and its different textures in foods and emulsions to create a wide range of staple products. We learnt that the ‘shortness’, how quickly something crumbles, is determined by the fat level – a low fat shortbread would not be a shortbread at all. While there is some demand for higher fat levels in “indulgence” products, we heard about some of the challenges in reducing fat in foods, in particular to maintain the nature and quality of products. There is significant variability in the fat reductions that can be made, with different solutions for different products. Removed fat needs to be replaced with something, and this can conflict with the desire for ‘clean’ labels, when for example preservatives may be required for a product with higher water content.

New technologies are required to help meet the challenges to design foods that are safe, stable and fit with a healthy, sustainable diet. The main message, don’t fight ingredient wars but focus on a whole food and dietary approach that can deliver positive health outcomes.

So who won? The audience, who benefitted from hearing cutting edge knowledge in a entertaining and enlightening format.

Thanks to Food Matters Live for supporting this event.


Session 1: Metabolising fats 
Bruce Griffin, University of Surrey

Session 2: Essential fats 
Robert Winwood, DSM Nutritional Products

Session 3: Role of fats in foods
Geoffrey Talbot

Session 4: Fat Replacers
Lindsey Bagley, Eureka

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