Low-fat cakes and cheeses which taste just as good as full-fat products could be heading for supermarket shelves within two years thanks to Scottish research.
Teams at Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh have been developing ways of replacing fats with proteins in foods without affecting taste and texture.
They now hope their findings could help expand the range of low-fat products available to consumers and help tackle problems such as obesity.
The research, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, involved producing modified proteins that easily break down into micro-particles and mimic the behaviour of fats during food manufacturing.
The researchers used whey protein from milk which was heated to a controlled temperature until it formed the right size of particles to act in the same way as traditional fats.
Dr Steve Euston, at Heriot-Watt, who led the project, said: “One of the things that gives cream its creamy texture is the way in which these small particles interact. One of the problems you have when you try to replace fat is how you replace that structure.
“What we have been doing is heating the proteins so they form small particles so they mimic the structure that fat has in normal food.”
It is hoped that the proteins will enable food manufacturers to remove much of the fat used in their products without compromising quality.
Protein-for-fat substitution is currently used in a small number of products such as yoghurt. But its use in cheeses and cakes has proved less successful, so far, in maintaining taste and texture because the proteins have not been as successful in mimicking the behaviour of fats.
But the researchers in Edinburgh have been refining their techniques so they now have a more detailed understanding of how the proteins behave when they are heated or undergo other manufacturing processes.
The researchers said they had achieved particularly promising results by using proteins to replace egg, which is commonly used as a gelling agent. Substituting eggs with protein could also help reduce the cost of products and encourage people to buy and eat healthier products, the researchers suggest.
Heriot-Watt spin-off company Nandi Proteins is to use the findings to extend its range of proteins. The hope is food manufacturers will incorporate them in new low-fat products.
Dr Euston added: “We’ve paved the way for the development of modified proteins that, by closely mimicking fat, can be used to produce a wider range of appealing low-fat foods.
The result could have important health benefits, as well as reducing the burden on the NHS caused by obesity and other weight-related problems.”