Charging more for low-fat foods 'adds to heart risks'

FOOD manufacturers are contributing to Britain's high rates of coronary heart disease by charging up to 40 per cent extra for healthier foods, according to a survey published today.

Eating low-fat foods is the most popular route to a better diet, according to research by the Food Commission. However, many manufacturers appear to view lower-fat products as 'upmarket products aimed at higher-income shoppers rather than as regular items that can be afforded by all consumers', it adds.

One result is that, despite the Government's target of reducing fat in the average diet from 40 to 35 per cent, the amount of fat Britons eat as a proportion of total food energy has remained virtually static for more than 20 years.

A survey by the commission, an independent research group, compared standard products such as biscuits, burgers, cheese, ice cream, crisps and sausages with their 'low-fat' counterparts and found most of the healthier foods were more expensive.

The report says the price premium cannot be explained by different ingredients. Some healthier foods cost the same as their higher-fat counterparts and a small minority were cheaper. The commission describes the premiums as unjustified and points out that, where low-fat alternatives are widely available at comparable prices, as with milk and margarine, sales have soared.

A survey of consumers found that eating low-fat foods was the most popular means of changing to a healthier diet, with 97 per cent preferring it to eating more fruit and vegetables (77 per cent) and cutting back on red meat (39 per cent). 'Blind' testings of full and low-fat foods by a panel of consumers have also found that, contrary to popular belief, there is little difference in taste.

The study, which is contained in the latest issue of Living Earth and The Food Magazine, adds that unless a wide range of reasonably priced, reduced-fat foods are available, the impact on the national diet will be negligible.

The commission also urges the Government to keep its promise to tighten up definitions of terms such as 'low-fat' and 'lite', which continue to 'mislead and confuse' consumers.