Healthy eating is on trend. From competition to grab the most market share to steadfast consumer commitment (even in the face of rising costs), the shift is palpable. Improvements in nutritional labeling and consumer information in recent years have enabled motivated consumers to make better food choices.
The number of food companies, however, on a mission to make better food isn’t enough to turn the tide on rising obesity rates. It’s a complex problem with no single answer. In most discussions, there is near silence by established food companies. The pandemic and supply chain disruptions of recent years, along with pressures from Wall Street, allowed established food companies to kick the can down the road on improving nutrition in their products.
American food manufacturers are working to create better-for-you products, which incorporate healthier fats and less saturated fats, especially since consumers are drawn to ultraprocessed foods that have been scientifically proven to increase body fat.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to reduce calories, fat and sugar from standard formulations without impacting taste. This is a fundamental issue, with a decades-long history.
Diet culture disappointment
In the 1980s and 1990s, dieting was a large trend. Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, Crystal Light and other CPG brands touting low-calorie options hit the market—along with sugar substitutes like NutraSweet and Splenda. Yet somehow, American obesity rates began to rise sharply until the late 2000s.
A new caloric conundrum
If the problem with consumer fat consumption in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s was deprivation, today it may be overindulgence. Atkins and Keto diets have popularized the idea that fat is our friend, and the consequences could be disastrous. While experts agree that good fats have benefits, saturated fat intake continues to increase despite warnings from health officials.
Today, food brands face a difficult catch-22: Consumers and governments demand healthier options, but no one wants to compromise on taste and satisfaction. Too little fat (or the wrong types of fats) compromises enjoyment and erodes bottom-line success; too much saturated fat contributes to a growing health crisis.
Food technology wanted
Balancing health and taste in better-for-you formulations isn’t easy. In fact, according to a 2020 shopper survey conducted by Epogee, only 18% of consumers surveyed said they are “extremely satisfied” with their current options for healthy, reduced-calorie foods—and 83% said they would be more interested in reduced-calorie versions of their favorite snacks if they tasted the same as their high-calorie counterparts.
Healthy food brands have heard this consumer gripe. Reducing fat in formulations, however, comes with obvious pitfalls in taste and texture. Plant-based oils can help, but only marginally since they come with health concerns.
Food ingredient science has grown by leaps and bounds in some areas, yet fat technology has remained largely stagnant. The same formulators who revolutionized plant proteins in recent years still rely on off-the-shelf standards like palm and coconut oils.
In the last decade or two, fat innovation has slowed to a trickle. Many remember the Olestra debacle; in the aftermath, most ingredient manufacturers gave up hopes of creating a viable fat alternative that wouldn’t carry the same stigma (and gastrointestinal side effects).
Persistent scientific effort, however, has finally delivered breakthrough innovation. Epogee worked for more than a decade to develop a new technology that helps food producers make products tasty and healthy, with less saturated fat and calories.
A call to action
A recent White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health focused on how government strategies, tactics and policies could help address food vulnerability issues while also improving national health. Each strategy came with a set of requests for a “Whole-Society Response” for local and state governments, philanthropic organizations and academia.
Calls to action to food manufacturers were noticeably absent, with just one mention out of dozens. The poor health outcomes and high healthcare costs that affect many Americans often result from unhealthy diets and should be a starting point for serious examination and constructive change. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation—one that also requires the support of innovative ingredient manufacturers.
David Rowe is a global business leader in food science. He is the founder and chief technology officer of Epogee, a food technology company that envisions a world where we can all choose foods that are delicious and better for us. He has built a successful career solving challenging problems in health, food and agriculture by effectively integrating complex technical, regulatory and economic factors. His career spans decades of executive leadership roles around the world with Dow AgroSciences, Dow Chemical and Eli Lilly and Company.