Fat phobia has ballooned since the 1950s, when saturated fats were blamed for obesity, heart disease and even cancer. But a recent report from Cambridge University scientists, which showed that saturated dairy fats can protect against Type 2 diabetes is just the latest scientific study to roll back decades of dietary dogma.
For instance, meta-analyses by the University of San Francisco (2010) and Cambridge and Harvard University scientists (2014) found no evidence that dairy saturated fats caused heart disease, while a Swedish study (Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, 2013) concluded that: "A high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity and a low dairy fat intake was associated with a higher risk of central obesity."
Dairy fats, it seems, have taken the rap for the real dietary villains: refined carbohydrates and sugars, and the industrial trans fats in margarine spreads and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils that initially replaced dairy products. This is good news, as saturated fats contribute greatly to the flavour, texture and satiety of dairy products (and are also vital for many body processes).
"I'm delighted to hear that dairy has received this endorsement from scientists, allowing people to enjoy some of their favourite products guilt free. A little of what you fancy does you good, and now this is confirmed," rejoices Quickes Dairy owner Mary Quicke.
But the findings fly in the face of current government guidance on saturated fats and, since ingrained perceptions die hard, caterers would be wise to let customers make their own choice between high- or low-fat options. Semi- and fully-skimmed options have become commonplace for fresh milk, but the trade-off is more sugar and fewer fat-soluble vitamins (such as A, D, E and K) and immune- and
metabolism-supporting fats such as Omega 3 fatty acids, anticancer and heart-protective CLA trans fat, and anti-inflammatory butyric acid, found especially in goats' and ewes' milk, Parmesan cheese and butter.
Plant-based alternatives (such as soya, oat, rice, coconut and almond milks) will cater for both vegans and customers intolerant of the lactose sugars and gluten like peptides in milk, and it is a sector that has, says Mintel, grown by 155% between 2011 and 2013 to penetrate
one in five households. Most are naturally much lower in fats than dairy, but also - excepting soya - in proteins, while milk is a complete protein.
Soya drink supplier Alpro - which has diversified into almond and hazelnut milks - values the non-dairy retail market above £148m.
Almond milk, which Alpro says also works well in porridge and smoothies, is a rising star that has eclipsed soya in the USA as the leading plant-based milk substitute.
Lactose is minimal in cheese, with sugar levels tending to rise as fat content drops. According to Chloe Féminier, group product manager at Bel Foodservice, UK cheese consumption has grown by 5.7% over the past 10 years. And interestingly, the fattiest format - Cheddar - remains king of the cheeseboard.
"Generally, we don't get asked for low-fat versions of dairy products," says Owen Davies, category manager at Cheese Cellar.
But with fat levels varying from 35% in Cheddar to 4.3% in cottage cheese, it can offer a range of lower-fat alternatives, such as ricotta at 13% fat, the skimmed milk Dorset Blue Vinny and ewes' milk cheeses such as feta, Roquefort, Manchego and Pecorino Romano, that are fattier but lower in saturated fats than cows' milk.
Goats' milk contains 20% less cholesterol than cows' milk, adds Quickes', which offers a Great Taste Award-winning hard goat's cheese and a goats' whey butter, and Cheese Cellar is developing sweet and savoury goats' curds on the back of a "massive increase" in sales of
goats' milk cheeses.
Animal feed also affects the quality of milk fats and the 22%- fat Reblochon de Savoie AOC cheese is all the better for the cows' diet of Alpine grass and flowers and winter hay rather than fermented corn and grass, says marketing director Anne-Lise Francoz. Summer grazing adds a floral touch to the hazelnut hint in the soft, white raw cheese, which is matured for 18 to 40 days and hand-produced on the farms.
With 13,500 tonnes of cheese used in pre-prepared sandwiches each year, Bel offers the pre-sliced sweet and nutty Leerdammer Light (with half the fat of Cheddar) and 7% fat Laughing Cow Light options, while its Mini Babybels - a big hit with kids - are available in a 50-calorie version. Lake District Dairy Co says its award-winning Quark (a soft curd cheese available in original, lemon and vanilla flavours) offers a naturally no-fat, high-protein, low sugar/salt replacement for cream cheese, Greek yogurt, double cream, mascarpone and ricotta in dishes ranging from cheesecakes to quiches.
Yogurts (where natural fat levels range from 10% for full Greek to 3%) are also widely available in low- and no-fat options - but at the cost of added sugar. However, low-calorie does not seem to be a key driver in the dessert market, as seen in the rapid growth in frozen yogurts and the growing appetite for ice-cream, traditionally high in both fat and sugar. A recent survey by premium brand Amore di Gelato found that almost 85% of leading hotels, gastropubs and restaurants now serve ice-cream desserts to more than half of their customers.
It also noted that 70% of consumers were opting for more unusual flavours, such as grape, beetroot, lavender or salted caramel, plus an emerging trend for ice-cream laced with alcohol, such as stout and Amaretto.
The real thing
Butter, too, is bouncing back, while sales of spreads decline, says Kantar Worldpanel, and Mintel says 39% of consumers now see butter as more natural and therefore healthier. Food marketing specialist Hamish Renton Associates sees a growth opportunity in flavoured butters
(and creams) - a recent example being iASC Atlantic Seafood's award-winning shellfish butter made from Irish butter, organic mussels and crab meat from West Cork and foraged dulse.
Davies' views on the huge popularity of the 84%-fat Lescure Butter AOC among Cheese Cellar's pÁ¢tisserie chef customers offers a pragmatic approach to the dairy debate: "It's widely believed that you simply cannot compromise on the quality of butter regardless of the implications. It is about achieving balance and moderation in one's diet - that rational argument has to pervade and is far more agreeable than taking a completely puritanical approach."
Kefir - the new chia?
If chia seeds were last year's superfood sensation, Nourish Kefir managing director Deborah Carr suspects its yogurt-like 'miracle milk drink' stands on the cusp of stardom. National newspapers are charting the growing craze for fermented (or living) foods, such as cultured vegetables, kombucha tea and kefir.
The refreshing, tart drink is created as kefir grains - clusters of good bacteria, yeasts and enzymes - fed on milk sugars and starches to create a nutrient-dense brew including anti-bacterial lactic acid that nourishes the body and its friendly gut bacteria while zapping the bad ones - which Washington University researchers recently reported can promote obesity and diabetes.
It's yogurt on steroids, containing up to 60 strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts against the maximum 10 found in yogurt, according to Cultured Food for Life author Donna Schwenk. This probiotic drink (a 'health claim' that has fallen foul of draconian new EU food rules) is credited with helping immunity, bloating, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, stomach ulcers, type 2 diabetes and allergies, making it a natural choice in schools and hospitals.
Nourish Kefir's traditionally produced drink made from organic cows' milk contains up to 20 billion live mico-organisms per 500ml bottle. While not a good coffee mate, Carr says kefir works well in smoothies, sauces (pesto and salad dressings and curry and kebab sauces) and baking.
The wisdom of replacing saturated fat-rich butters and lards with vegetable oils is now being questioned, as polyunsaturates have proved to be unstable at high temperatures, degrading into a complex of hazardous oxidation chemicals such as aldehydes - even oxidising human LDL cholesterol to create a cancer and arterial plaque risk.
Conversely, the saturated fats in animal and tropical oils such as coconut and palm (now making a comeback as vegan-friendly options) do not oxidise when heated as they lack the double bonds that react with oxygen.
Ghee (Indian clarified butter) remains popular in French kitchens because it is a stable, pure-fat product with a high smoke point that has been stripped of the proteins that burn even at low heat, says Hook & Son, which supplies raw organic milk, butter and cream from its farm in East Sussex.
Being almost moisture-free, ghee will store for months at ambient temperatures without becoming rancid.
- Alpro UK alpro.com/foodservice
- Amore di Gelato www.amoredigelato.com
- Bel Foodservice cheese-recipes.co.uk
- Cheese Cellar www.cheesecellar.co.uk
- French Interprofessional Federation for Reblochon www.reblochon.fr
- Hook and Son Co www.hookandson.co.uk
- iASC Atlantic Seafood www.iascseafood.com
- Lake District Dairy Co www.lakedistrictquark.co.uk
- Nourish Kefir www.nourishkefir.co.uk
- Quickes Dairy www.quickes.co.uk