If ’pastygate’ drew bakers on to the capital’s streets in protest at the addition of VAT on hot pies, then brace yourself for a full-scale storming of Westminster if the latest thinking in medical circles gains traction. A recent paper in the British Medical Journal made headlines recently by calling for a shake-up of food taxation, so that goods or bads, if you will are taxed according to how healthy they are.

On top of that, report author Dr Mike Rayner of Oxford University is also urging the government to eradicate VAT exemption on perceived unhealthy products, such as cold pasties. So should bakers be sharpening their peels and booking the National Express to Victoria? Not yet. Public health minister Anne Milton quickly distanced herself from the report’s recommendations, stating that "collective voluntary action" was the govern-ment’s preferred route to tackling obesity.

An ’unhealthy food tax’ based on the fat, salt, sugar and calorie profile of a food item would be a tough political sell in light of the calamitously unpopular hot takeaway food VAT hike. But it does show how thinking around food health is shifting away from single nutrients, such as saturated fats, towards the overall healthiness of foods, and that taxation is in the mix of solutions.

Even so, the sat fat reduction debate has not gone away. Since the Food Standards Agency (FSA) dropped 5-10% saturated fat reduction targets on an unsuspecting industry in 2009, the issue has gone following a change of government. Meanwhile, the Department of Health (DoH) absorbed the FSA’s nutrition regulatory role and launched the Responsibility Deal (RD) Food Network a vehicle for manufacturers and health organisations to set nutrition pledges. This has so far covered calorie labelling, salt and trans fats reduction in phase one, and calorie reduction, increased consumption of fruit and vegetables and salt reduction in catering in phase two. But the RD has yet to formally address sat fats.

Sat fat pledge

The DoH has revealed to British Baker that work will begin later this year to develop a collective pledge on saturated fat, which will form part of the programme for the RD. The intention is to complete this work by Easter 2013. Worryingly, the DoH tells us: "The RD supersedes any work previously undertaken by the FSA to develop targets for saturated fat reduction and portion size for a range of foods, including cakes, biscuits, etc." So where does this leave companies that have slashed their sat fat levels?

"If the DoH were to issue another 10% reduction, then we’d have a problem," says Stephen Bickmore, UK commercial manager of fats supplier Vandemoortele’s lipids division. "Some people took no notice and carried on as they were. But those companies that were quick to the game and achieved a reduction in their saturated fat levels would have to do it again. Some have reduced sat fats by 30-40% in the last couple of years and you cannot do any more without ruining the product completely.

"We have to be careful about where the start point is, and this is a conver-sation I’ve had with the DoH."

While Vandemoortele has developed margarines that reduce levels from a standard 82% to 75%, 70% or even lower, it is leaving nothing to chance, and is investigating new ways to take sat fats down further. But the feeling is that the DoH is out of touch with progress already made to reformulate healthier bakery products.

"If there’s a communications gap, it’s from the government to the manufacturer, and understanding the headaches it causes when you ask for another 5% reduction it’s another reformulation and you have to adapt your process," says Adrian Short, director at Ulrick & Short, which supplies ingredients based on tapioca extracts for use in reduced-fat recipes. "A lot of plant bakers have stripped back R&D, and there’s a lot of time needed for R&D (for reformulation)."

There are major technical, financial and consumer challenges for companies to overcome when new targets arise, which can be particularly onerous for small and medium-sized bakeries. "For example, fat reduction has a direct impact on product integrity, with some fat needed to avoid crumbling, and on processing requirements such as maintaining the shape of a biscuit before placing it in the oven, and the release of liquid fat during cooking," says Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science, Food & Drink Federation. "In cream-filled cakes, pastries and biscuits, as well as those containing or coated in chocolate, there is often a need for solid, saturated fat to hold the structure. The direct replacement of saturated fat with other fats can lead to the migration of liquid components and ’oiling out’."

Fats suppliers such as AAK have invested heavily to overcome the technical hurdles, inventing pumpable alternatives to boxed fats, as well as reduced saturates and lower-fat versions of standard cake and pastry ingredients. But has the will to use them ebbed away? "The double-dip recession has re-focused minds and, where once the drive to improve nutrition might have been a deciding factor in recipe reformulation, now it’s just as likely to be cost," says Judith Murdoch, marketing controller at AAK. "In many cases, consumers are forced to choose price over nutritional profile and the pasty tax VAT on hot food won’t help."

Amid sky-high egg prices, it is hardly surprising if bakers prioritise maintaining their price point over health reformulation especially with the sat fat issue left in limbo by government with no universal agreement on whether sat fat reduction is a good or bad thing.

"A lot of the papers being published in peer-reviewed journals are less in your face about having to reduce saturated fats per se," comments ’fat consultant’ Geoff Talbot. "What they’re saying is that if you reduce sat fat, you have to be very much aware of what you put in its place. Taking sat fat out and putting carbohydrates in flour or sugar or whatever has been shown to be a bad move nutritionally."

So what about taxation? While David Cameron made positive noises at the 2011 Conservative Party Conference about Denmark’s recent sat fat food tax, even Dr Rayner admits we’re unlikely to see the UK follow suit. "My advice to him was to be a bit cautious on that one, but certainly to look at the French soft drinks tax. Refor-ming VAT would take a lot more political will than a sugary drinks tax," he says.

"What I’m arguing for is not taxation based on a single nutrient, such as satu-rated fat. We’ve done some modelling on the Danish saturated fat tax and we think that might not be at all good for health. You need to tailor your taxation towards the overall healthiness of the food. We’re not optimistic we’d see such a tax tomorrow, or indeed in the next couple of years. People like me need to convince that these taxes would actually have the effects we’re claiming."

While politicians scratch their heads for solutions to the UK’s obesity problem, the solution will remain a hot pasty issue to be juggled around Whitehall. But for now, heed these reassuring words from a DoH spokesperson, and interpret them as you will: "We have made clear (the government) does not wish to adopt a top-down approach to tackling obesity and other diet-related health issues. We want people to know that they can change their lifestyle and, by doing so, they can make a difference to their health."

Sat fats and obesity

Saturated fat is a major source of energy (calories) in the diet. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2008/09-2009/10) showed average population intakes of sat fat fell slightly from 13.3% in 2001 to 12.8% in the period above. This appears to be due to reduced contribution from whole milk, butter and savoury snacks, and is despite an increased contribution from meat and meat products. The government has expressed in the past that sat fats should account for no more than 11% of food energy intake.