The Western world is currently in the grip of a major obesity epidemic. According to the European Commission, 14 million Europeans are obese or overweight, of which more than 3 million are children.
Obesity-related illnesses, which include heart disease and diabetes, account for up to 7 per cent of healthcare costs in the EU.
In some member states, over a quarter of the adult population is now obese.
The food industry has come in for a good deal of criticism for its part in contributing to the problem - especially makers of junk food products and those marketed to children.
But rising awareness of healthy eating and obesity issues amongst consumers is creating demand for foods that are either 'good for you', or 'not so bad'.
Leatherhead's two projects deal with the relationship between fat content in foods, sensory characteristics and consumer liking of product categories; and the role of dietary peptides in satiety, together with the physical and sensorial properties of food/drink model systems.
For the first, it will evaluate five levels of fat reduction in a number of product categories, including mayonnaise and dressings, reconstituted creams, baked products, confectionary filling creams and chocolate.
The aim is to be able to maximise fat reduction in each of the categories, while maintaining minimal loss of sensory quality. The researchers will, therefore, seek to identify the precise points at which the fat content affects product or processing characteristics.
The peptide research is based on the understanding that peptides can physiologically influence eating behaviour, as well as play a role in gastrointestinal function.
"Dietary protein is generally agreed to be the most satiating macronutrient and in many cases, high-protein meals increase feelings of satiety and decrease subsequent energy intake compared with either a high-fat or a high-carbohydrate meal," said Leatherhead.
Leatherhead's approach will be to select two or three model systems, based on drink, pudding-like and baked product categories (depending on the preferences of participating companies).
Section manager for the ingredients and product innovation group Pretima Titoria told NutraIngredients.com that her team is open to looking at both existing and novel/propertiary products, or could propose blends or mixtures that might eventually yield new products.
.Products will be formulated using proteins and peptides, and they will then be subjected to textural and sensory evaluation to assess quality and customer satisfaction.
Once the best-characterised products have been identified, these will be tested on 12 healthy adults in a three-way cross-over design study.
"Results will provide insight as to which peptides/proteins or combinations thereof provide increased satiety, calorie for calorie and may have an application in the food industry for weight loss/sustained energy drinks," Leatherhead expects.
Titoria explained that the collaborative projects are funded by the consortium of participating companies.
"The advantages of doing the collaborative projects lie in the cost being shared by the participants, in the participants being able to compare the results of their products with other participants' products, in being able to have a larger picture of the ingredients' performances, and in relying on Leatherhead as an independent research company," she said.
While initiatives such as Leatherhead's are important in helping food companies deliver healthier products, this week the Confederation of the food and drink industries of the European Union put out the opinion that food is only part of the problem.
It said that there was a definite need for greater understanding of all obesity-related factors, and that these should include the determinants that affect food choice - factors that lead to insufficient physical activity in every-day life - and not just food products themselves.
Titoria agreed that the obesity crisis need to be addressed by government, food industry and consumers. But she said: "There needs to be a way of informing consumers who then can make right decisions.
"This is an on-going subject, but nonetheless, research by the food industry will be regarded as a proactive approach to contribute to tackling this issue."
The deadline for expression of interest in participation in Leatherhead projects is April 28.