As people become more conscious of what goes into the foods and beverages they consume, and the potential impacts—good or bad—of those dietary choices, mindsets and habits begin to change.
In the 2019 SupplySide West/FiNA [Food ingredients North America] education session “The Shift from Sugar to Natural Sweeteners,” those evolving consumer mindsets and the behaviors that (slowly) follow became clear. Data, trends, scientific knowledge and personal experiences were shared by the following:
- Darren Seifer, food & beverage industry analyst, the NPD Group;
- Ali Webster, Ph.D., RD, associate director, nutrition communications, International Food Information Council (IFIC);
- Eric Pierce, vice president of business insights, NEXT Data & Insights, Informa Markets;
- Amanda Hartt, market research manager-trends, NEXT Data & Insights, Informa Markets;
- Alex Woo, CEO, W20 Food Innovations;
- Ben Goodwin, co-founder, Olipop;
- Sarah Meis, senior vice president, marketing and innovation, Lily’s Sweets
Taking each presentation as part of a whole, the whole picture of this shift away from sugar took shape.
The session included data from various surveys of different consumer populations, all of which pointed toward a consumer base that believes in the need to monitor or eliminate sugar intake. It also showed that, while slow, consumer intentions to move away from sugar are becoming their practice.
IFIC’s 2018 Food and Health found 38% of respondents considered their diets extremely or very different today than 10 years ago, compared to just 28% who reported little or no change. And, among those who said their diets have changed, limiting sugar intake was the top reported difference, surpassing both carbohydrates and fat as the top dietary avoidance. Seifer reported that, in 2014, sugar overtook fat as the most-avoided dietary item in their Dieting Monitor survey for the first time, with nearly 70% of adults looking to avoid or eliminate it from their diets.
Based on Webster’s IFIC data, we also can see why many Americans are looking to avoid sugar, and the reasons overwhelmingly point to health concerns. Of the top four reasons given by those who claim not to use any sugar at home, three had to do with health and/or weight concerns. The top reason given for cutting back on sugar, according to Webster, was “I don’t need to add sweetness,” showing that in addition to health concerns (or perhaps because of them), the desire for overly sweet foods and drinks is also declining. Webster also showed data indicating sugar (27%) was considered the most likely ingredient in foods or drinks to cause weight gain—more than carbs (23%), fats (13%) and protein (3%). This assumption permeates consumer shopping habits as well; Webster showed that, even if nutritional information is identical, sweeter tasting foods and drinks are perceived to be “less healthy.”
With the “why?” about the shift away from sugar answered, the next question addressed is the “what?”. That is, what are people doing to decrease their sugar intake, and what can brands do with this information?
The answer to the first question, it seemed, was a little bit of everything. According to IFIC data, a switch to plain water from caloric beverages was the top sugar-avoidance choice, with more than 60% of respondents doing so. The vaguer, but same idea of “eliminating certain foods and beverages from my diet” was the second-most-selected option; no longer adding table sugar to foods and closer inspection of food labels while shopping were also popular choices. In terms of specific foods and beverages, soft drinks, candy, baked goods such as cookies and cakes, and frozen desserts such as ice cream were the top choices being avoided, albeit gradually.
Seifer also noted some concrete examples of ways consumers are avoiding sugar, such as a slight decline in cereal consumption and slight increase in egg consumption at breakfast, suggesting a potential shift from sugary breakfast foods to more savory options. The same is being seen at snack times, with a steady decline in options such as candies and donuts and an increase in options like protein bars, fresh fruit and meat snacks like jerky.
The problem with expecting consumers to avoid sugar and sugary foods just because they might be unhealthy is an obvious one: People still like sweet things, especially as a treat or reward. Consumers are aware that foods like ice cream and candy are often unhealthy; they just ultimately eat them anyway.
That is where natural sugar replacements come in. People don’t want to give up sweets as much as they want to give up the poor health effects of those sweets; it is up to brands to deliver those indulgences without the drawbacks.
Unfortunately, brands trying to formulate or re-formulate products that deliver on sweetness without the sugar face an uphill battle. Webster noted 4 in 10 consumers have a negative perception of low- or no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS), which include acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), aspartame, saccharin, stevia and monk fruit, to name a few. Some of the reasons for the negative perception include belief that these sweeteners are unhealthy and dislike for the taste. That said, the top drivers for LNCS use are avoidance of the alternative (sugar) and calorie content, meaning those who seek to avoid sugar are using that avoidance as a reason to try alternatives.
As it becomes clear that, even with some negative connotations regarding certain LNCS, consumers are willing to try them over table sugar, the question becomes which sweeteners to use. Based on data presented by Hartt and Pierce, consumers are looking for several qualities in their natural sweeteners, including reduction of calories, reduction of total sugars added, recognizable and “non-chemical sounding” names and organic and/or non-GMO status.
Alex Woo of W20 Food Innovation provided insight into how to accomplish these things using natural sweeteners such as stevia (going into detail about the benefits and drawbacks of several extracts, such as rebaudioside-A and -M), monk fruit and erythritol. He explained the science behind which sweeteners are more or less sweet or bitter compared to table sugar, how long certain sweeteners take to hit “peak” sweetness on the taste buds, and which off-notes may be present and for how long. He also explained how combining multiple sweeteners—called stacking—such as stevia with monk fruit can allow the best of each ingredient to shine and overcome their disadvantages.
The session concluded with Ben Goodwin and Sarah Meis, representing Olipop, a functional and sugar-free “sparkling tonic” in the soft drink category, and Lily’s, a stevia-sweetened chocolate, respectively. The pair discussed how the information presented earlier—consumer desires and actions, scientific approaches to flavor, etc.—had real-life impacts on their companies and how they do business. The two also shared how and why their companies chose the specific ingredients they did, how to engage with consumers, how to go about spreading their sugar-alternative messaging, and how to handle a consumer base who may want to eat healthier, but not always be willing to act on those desires.
Hartt and Pierce also presented data comparing Natural Products Expo East and West shows from 2017 and 2019 that showed many other brands are getting in on the natural sweetener bandwagon. From 2017 to 2019, products utilizing monk fruit as a sweetener increased by 88% at Expo West; other non-sugar sweeteners such as erythritol (23%) and honey (8%) also saw increases, while cane sugar use decreased by 12%.
Overall, the session made the current state of sugar and alternative sweeteners quite clear: Consumers want to avoid sugar and know why they feel that way—but may need advice (and a friendly push in the right direction) to act on those desires in a meaningful way.
For more from Alex Smolokoff, listen to his interview with Sandy Almendarez, where the two discuss trends seen at SupplySide West 2019, including collagen everything, natural colors and help getting through the stresses of daily life.