- Two recent surveys underscore that consumers continue to be concerned about sugar levels in their food and beverages. One-third of Americans link sugar with weight gain, 71% read the sugar content on ingredient labels, and 46% strongly want to reduce their sugar consumption, according to a Kerry white paper cited by Food Navigator.
- Kerry warned in the white paper about the ramifications for the CPG industry as consumers take active steps to manage their sugar consumption by increasingly cooking at home, controlling portion sizes and purchasing fewer packaged foods and beverages.
- Also in a survey from Ingredion, 72% of consumers said having added sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts panel would negatively impact their purchase of yogurt. Almost the same amount — 71% — said the same for fruit drinks, 53% had that sentiment about cookies, and 52% said it would have that same impact for snack bars.
Given the ongoing negative attitudes about sugar, the question for CPG brands is how they can survive a potentially serious consumer shift. Should they slash sugar levels in their products, swap in natural sweeteners, or try both strategies?
In practice, both approaches can be deployed as manufacturers attempt to win back sugar-avoiding consumers. The Kerry survey noted that new product launches featuring "low/no/reduced sugar" label claims jumped 45% last year compared to five years ago. Products with a "no artificial sweeteners" claim have climbed 4.4% from a year ago, and those with a "no added sugar" claim increased 2.6% during the same period, according to the survey.
Changing the type of sweetener in a product to something lower-calorie or "healthier" may not be as popular, but some food and beverage makers are giving it a shot. Nestlé has been experimenting with a patented type of hollow sugar, which the Swiss company said can reduce the need for regular sugar by as much as 40%. The company has committed to reducing sugar in its products by an average of another 5% by 2020. Coca-Cola debuted Coca-Cola Stevia No Sugar in New Zealand in May to meet consumer demand for less sugar, good taste and naturally sourced sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners may be more expensive in some cases — particularly stevia and monk fruit, as well as honey — yet consumers often prefer them to other substances. Honey was the top choice in natural sweeteners for 64% of respondents in the Kerry survey, while 59% said they favored sugar and 31% preferred maple syrup. Those on the less-preferred list were viewed as artificial or weren't familiar, such as erythritol, acesulfame K and monk fruit. And older millennials were willing to do without as much sweetness in general.
But not all consumers are willing to pay up. Cost is a particular concern when it comes to manufacturing flavored water, according to Ingredion.
"In beverages, sweeteners have a high cost-in-use impact,” Akshay Anugu, an associate in global sweeteners research and development for the global ingredients firm, told Food Business News. "An expensive sweetener can increase the overall flavored water formulation cost by 150% to 200%."
Companies that aren't willing to invest in sweeteners besides sugar may face a customer backlash if consumers don't like a reduced-sugar formulation of products — which may have a different mouthfeel, flavor and sweetness level. Consumers may expect the same taste as before but with fewer calories — and less guilt.
Some other manufacturers — especially cereal makers — seem to be sticking with table sugar and continuing to produce indulgence brands featuring the sweetness level consumers say they want to avoid but still flock to for a tried-and-true taste. General Mills' Lucky Charms Frosted Flakes, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch Shredded Wheat and Kellogg's Chocolate Frosted Flakes are in this category, which reportedly has been doing better at the checkout stand than some healthier and less-sugary versions.