Oil over troubled water: interview with Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith, chairman of SCI's Oils and Fats Committee and lipid scientist at Unilever Colworth, talks to SCI about the June 2008 conference: 'Crystallisation & Physical Properties of Fats: from Molecules to Market', developing trends for the industry and key facts we should all know about oils and fats.

Who was the conference aimed at?
It was aimed at anyone who works in the fats and oils sector, whether in academia or industry.

Can you tell us something about fats and oils that we don’t know?
Well, we all need fat in our diets – otherwise we wouldn’t be able take in fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D and E. Fat protects our organs and keeps us warm. We need some saturated fat in our diet, and even olive oil has some saturated fat in it – about 10%!

What’s new in the oils and fats industry?
In the quest for a healthy lifestyle, aside from combating obesity by reducing fat intake, there are two key issues which are dominating the industry – the removal of trans-fatty acids and the reduction of saturated fats from products.

What challenges does this pose?
Saturated and trans-fats have been utilised in products because they serve a specific function – either giving physical structure or increasing storage stability. For example, if chocolate did not have some saturated fat, it would be liquid at room temperature. The challenge is keeping the desirable properties, while reducing trans-fats and saturated fat.

How is the industry gearing up to tackling this?
Some reduction in trans and saturates is possible by taking simple pragmatic approaches but, to go further, more work is required, like that carried out in academia on model systems. As often in science, breakthroughs come as we bring these two faces of the industry together.

What attracted you to this area?
I fell into it! I took a work placement with Unilever as part of a ‘sandwich’ degree course and discovered there was much more to fats than margarine and butter – the rest is history.

What advice would you give students wishing to go into this area?
There are different aspects to the study of fats, including their physical and nutritional properties. There are relatively few places that really specialise in the physical properties of fats, so it is important to seek them out. Work experience through industry placements is also a good move.

Lipids Group

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