Cutting the calories in cakes and biscuits via PHE programme

Queen Mary University London wants to see these products brought under further scrutiny after finding many are energy dense and contribute to the UK health problems.

5 June 2019
image credit: Getty Images

Cake and biscuits are under the microscope again with researchers calling on Public Health England to include them in its calorie reduction programme, after finding both own-label and private-label products contain a considerable amount of fat.

Queen Mary University of London surveyed nearly 1,000 cakes and biscuits sold in supermarkets, including Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co-op, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, with self-service bakery items, crispbreads and crackers part of the review.

High levels of fat and saturated fat were found across the range, with 57% of cakes and 75% of biscuits falling into the red category under the traffic light system. Fat contributes substantially to energy density compared to sugar, according to the research, which was published in the journal Nutrients.

“In both cakes and biscuits, total and saturated fat content contributed to about 20% of the product weight and around 40% of the overall energy. On the other hand, sugar contributed to more than 30% of the product weight for both cakes and biscuits, and 23% of biscuits’ overall energy and 34% of cakes’ overall energy,” the report said.“These findings show that fat reformulation can be more effective in lowering energy density than sugar reformulation alone, although both should be implemented.”

Let them not eat cake

Cakes and biscuits are already included in PHE’s Sugar Reduction Programme, but a recent evaluation of the scheme showed that since its implementation, product energy density in these categories has been minimally reduced.

“The reason may be that when manufacturers reduce sugar content, the starch and protein content is increased proportionally,” noted the Queen Mary University of London paper. “Starch and protein have the same energy density as sugar and thus a reduction in sugar content may not automatically translate into a fall in energy density.”

The researchers argue that reducing fat content in cakes and biscuits could result in a substantial cut in calories, which would help combat obesity and cholesterol problems in the UK.

Two in three adults and one in three children are overweight or obese in the UK.

“In the past, cakes and biscuits were considered occasional treats and consumed infrequently; however, this is now not the case, with nine out of 10 people reporting regular consumption,” explained the report.

“Cakes and biscuits (including pastries, buns and fruit pies) cumulatively contribute to 9–15% of the total energy intake of the British population. These products also contribute to 8–12% of the total fat and 14–23% of the total dietary free sugars. Cakes and biscuits are also important sources of saturated fat, contributing to 9-15% of the total saturated fat intake in the population. In England, saturated fat intake is high, and exceeds the recommended limit of 10% of the food energy.”

The PHE Calorie Reduction Programme aims to halve obesity rates by 2030, and while the scheme is still under development, it has a 20% calorie reduction target for processed foods by 2024. Currently, it includes categories like ready meals, pizza and savoury snacks.

“We think that reducing fat is a more effective [way of reducing total calories],” lead author Roberta Alessandrini told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator. “If the PHE also includes cakes and biscuits in its calorie reduction strategy, this could lead to more progress in terms of calorie reduction.”

Alessandrini argued other products have been included in the two schemes, like breads with added ingredients, such as ciabatta with olives.

“We think the same could also happen for cakes and biscuits. Sugar reformulation should be implemented because reducing sugar is a very important public health target. But to reduce calories, it is also important to reduce fat,” she said. “It’s not one or the other. We want to reduce sugar and we want to reduce fat at the same time, to make sure that these products can be healthy as possible.”

A tax on energy density?

A recent study showed that if the Sugar Reduction Programme was entirely implemented across the UK, there would be a reduction of energy intake of 25kcal per person per day.

“Such reduction is minimal compared to the 200–300 excess calories consumed daily by the average British person,” the paper said.“Our results indicate that fat reformulation is an essential mechanism to meaningfully reduce product energy density and achieve a substantial deficit of energy intake.”

The fat and sugar in these foods should be substituted with ingredients low in calories and high in fibre such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains,recommended the report. It also suggested an energy density tax to prompt manufacturers to properly respond to the voluntary calorie reduction programme.

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