The Kerry Group taste and nutrition company has developed an interactive consumer preference simulator to reveal how people respond to sweetening agents, calorie counts and proteins counts across six product categories, Food Ingredients First reported.
The Ireland-based company gathered consumer views of 17 sweeteners to better understand how people perceive them across sports drinks, carbonated soft drinks, ice cream, flavored alcoholic malt beverages, granola bars and cookies, Food Ingredients First said.
The simulator allows users to pick a product category, adjust the type of sweetener, calories and protein level for a maximum of three product combinations and then determines the most preferred one to help reach a more consumer-driven development approach.
Kerry's interactive simulator tool is an extension of the company's recent "Sensibly Sweet' white paper research. Among other findings, the white paper states sugar is the most important nutritional feature influencing product purchases, and it provides statistics on Americans' sugar perceptions.
For example, 46% of Americans want to limit their sugar consumption, and 27% of U.S. consumers would like products to taste less sweet. In addition, half of consumers look for the type of sweetener on product packaging.
When it comes to the kinds of sweeteners consumers prefer, the top five according to Kerry's research are honey, sugar, maple sugar, stevia and agave — with all perceived as relatively natural. The bottom five preferred sweeteners are erythritol, acesulfame K, monk fruit, sorbitol and xylitol.
Since there are so many sweeteners on the market today, trying to figure out which ones to use is a real puzzle for product development and manufacturing. Will consumers want to stick with tried-and-true table sugar despite the empty calories, or will they go for a zero-calorie and more natural sweetener such as stevia, even though there may be an objectionable aftertaste?
Solving the sweetener puzzle holds rewards for those who choose wisely. The sugar alternatives market is estimated at $16 billion to $20 billion. So Kerry's algorithm to help determine which sweetener might best fit an individual product could be a valuable tool for research and development professionals and others rolling the dice about the public's preferences when it comes to sweet tastes. However, manufacturers will no doubt back up any information with consumer tasting panels and trial releases before they go all-in on one choice and risk making the wrong one.
Some manufacturers have lived to regret their sweetener formulation decisions. In 2010, ConAgra switched out high-frutose corn syrup for sugar in Hunt’s ketchup, but some consumers didn't care for the flavor change, so the company decided to make both varieties. Kraft had a similar experience when it replaced HFCS with sucrose and then sugar in Capri Sun, as did PepsiCo in 2015 when it went from aspartame to sucralose in Diet Pepsi. On the plus side, stevia-sweetened beverages seem to be doing well, even as research continues into extracting the cleanest-tasting components of the plant.
Consumers like sweetness, but they're also fickle about whether they'll accept higher calories, higher cost, or a different mouthfeel or aftertaste than what they're used to. It's unlikely that the problem of sweetener solutions will be solved anytime soon, although more research, more products and perhaps preference simulators are likely to play their part in developing the elusive answer.