- Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center reviewed 393,568 unique food reviews of 67,553 products posted during a decade from a quarter of a million Amazon customers and found one consistent complaint: Many foods are too sweet. The study was posted online in the journal Physiology & Behavior.
- "This is the first study of this scale to study food choice beyond the artificial constraints of the laboratory," Danielle Reed, the study's lead author and a behavioral geneticist at Monell, said in a statement. "Sweet was the most frequently mentioned taste quality and the reviewers definitively told us that human food is over-sweetened."
- The study's other findings show that taste is more important than other factors such as price, and sweetness draws more complaints than saltiness.
The researchers found more than 30% of Amazon food product reviews used the word "taste," and 11% referred to "sweet taste." Excess sweetness was 25 times more frequently mentioned than under-sweetness and a sweet taste was almost three times more likely to be mentioned than a bitter one, the researchers found.
Manufacturers wanting to keep their products out front in the marketplace might want to pay attention to the results of this study and reduce the amount of sweetness in recipes when possible. Several have already spent a lot of time and money to do just that, including Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kind Snacks, and there is more sugar-reduction technology in development.
Other studies have shown results similar to this latest analysis as consumers have increasingly moved away from sugar. But a lot of the research has found consumers turning away from the ingredient because of the impact on obesity and other potential health dangers. This latest study adds another reason to continue that trend in taste.
At the same time, some cereal and candy makers have been going the opposite direction and ramping up the sugar content in their products to attract millennials and others looking for indulgence. While most consumers have looked to cut down on their sugar consumption, other studies have shown that they are not necessarily against the ingredient itself, so some sugar makers have worked to emphasize its advantages.
But there could be consequences if food makers don't respond to this latest study. A Kerry white paper released last year noted consumer concerns about too much sugar had ramifications for the CPG industry as shoppers take active steps to manage their consumption of the sweetener by increasingly cooking at home, controlling portion sizes and purchasing less packaged foods and beverages.
While the debate over sugar will undoubtedly continue, there are other aspects of this study that could prove useful in the short term.
After using machine learning to sift through the massive amount of data to identify certain words in food reviews, the scientists said applying big data to consumer feedback could be helpful in improving health through personalized nutrition. It's possible more studies will be tackled using this type of an approach. Personalized nutrition and better eating are seen as effective ways to tackle health problems.
Additionally, complaints regarding saltiness weren't as common in the food product reviews, which researchers found surprising since there has been a lot of recent publicity about the dangers of too much salt in the diet. That could convince companies to shift from salt-reduction efforts to sugar.