Sugar growers, processors and refiners should be playing up the positive aspects of their products and leaving out the negative ones, according to a recent presentation at the International Sweetener Symposium in Traverse City, Michigan reported by Food Business News.
That's because while consumers are focused on wellness and want to reduce sugar in their foods and beverages, taste is the most important factor when it comes to purchasing decisions, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for market research firm Mintel.
"Sugar fits all of the positive attributes," Dornblaser said. "There’s a disconnect between what you (sugar producers) know and what consumers believe," adding that 41% of consumers view their well-being as a work in progress.
While most consumers typically want to cut down on their sugar consumption, they are not necessarily totally against the ingredient itself, so sugar makers are being urged to emphasize its advantages.. These include contributing a desirable taste and flavor, as well as being positively associated with celebratory foods and beverages.
Natural sweeteners, including stevia, are growing in popularity, but 64.4% of consumers positively rate honey as the healthiest natural sweetener, and 33% of them rate raw cane sugar the same way, Mintel's Lynn Dornblaser said. However, she also noted that shoppers aren't swayed so much by the type of sugar in products but are more influenced by taste, value and brand.
"Taste rules," she said. "Health and natural take a backseat to taste."
Confusion and misinformation feed into consumers' negative perceptions about sugar, according to Rob Levine, partner and vice president of strategy for Marriner Marketing, who also spoke at the symposium. In a survey of 800 consumers, Levine said 81% felt it was OK to have sugary foods occasionally, but 69% were looking for more natural sugar sources — though 65% thought sugar was natural and 46% believed sugar was bad. The latter belief typically is because sugar adds empty calories and can contribute to obesity and diabetes.
According to Mintel research, 84% of Americans are limiting the amount of sugar in their diet, and 79% look at food and beverage labels to find out the types of sugar or sweetener used. Whether they put something back on the shelf if the amount seems too high is another question.
Consumers will soon have more information about added sugars, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requiring to be listed on product packaging as part of the updated Nutrition Facts label starting in 2020 and 2021, depending on the size of the company.
It's possible that consumers may take a more negative view of some products once added sugar levels are in plain sight, although a number of food and beverage makers — including Hershey, Campbell Soup and Mondelez — have already started adding them to get ahead of the requirement. Sales of some sugary cereals have recently posted better sales than healthier varieties. Similar to most products, the deciding factor seems to be taste.
Most people appreciate an indulgent treat once in a while, which is another asset for sugar and a fact not likely to change anytime soon. It may be that sugar isn't really the enemy when compared to artificial sweeteners, which are far more likely to be viewed with suspicion and distaste than the real thing.