Sugar’s reputation may be souring with people looking to eat healthier, but for now the sweetener is so ubiquitous in many of the foods people enjoy that it's unlikely to relinquish its stronghold despite efforts to unseat it.
Sugar is closely associated with celebratory foods, such as birthday and wedding cakes, not to mention the box of Valentine’s Day chocolates or candy collected by kids out trick or treating. It's also loaded into cookies, sodas, breads, condiments, juices and countless other products routinely purchased by American shoppers.
The average person around the world consumed 34 grams of sugar per day in 2014 from packaged foods and beverages, according to data from Euromonitor. But it was the U.S. that was far and away the biggest user at 126 grams per day — the equivalent of three 12-ounce cans of Pepsi or four 1.69-ounce bags of original M&Ms.
“Sweet has always had positive connotations, and been a desirable flavor,” Amy Bentley, a professor in the New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, told Food Dive. “We celebrate milestones with sweet products … even though we can have chocolate every day of the week."
Craving sugar early in life
At its core, sweet is a safe flavor, indicating on an instinctual level that the food won’t harm us, unlike some bitter or sour tastes. People display a fondness for sweetness, one of the six flavors they can taste, early on in life. The Journal of Nutrition found in 2012 that newborn babies even have a preference for sweet flavors, and will consume more of a solution if it has that flavoring.
Despite consumers’ fondness for sugar, it is currently one of the most vilified ingredients on the market due to its association with higher risks of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Nearly half of global consumers are interested in foods with limited or no added sugar, Euromonitor found. Mintel estimated 84% of Americans said they are limiting the amount of sugar in their diet, and 79% check labels for the types of sugar or sweetener used.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also is taking an active role, requiring that added sugars be listed on product packaging as part of the updated Nutrition Facts label. The compliance date has been pushed back, but for now, large manufacturers will have to start declaring them starting in 2020.
With the ongoing criticism facing sugar and the broader push toward healthier eating, it would be logical to assume that consumption has fallen significantly. But that's not necessarily the case.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consumed 20.8 teaspoons of added sugars and sweeteners per day in 1970. That amount spiked in 2000 to 26 teaspoons, largely due to soda consumption, Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, told Food Dive.
But since then, legislative initiatives to curb consumption of sugary drinks have been passed across the country, most notably in cities in California, Colorado and Pennsylvania. At the same time, consumers have shifted toward better-for-you drinks such as tea, water and coffee.
“Sugar is going to still be desired, and we’ll still be looking for it because we like that sweet taste. I think [sugar consumption] will decrease. But, it takes a long time for people’s tastes to change.”
Professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University
Over time, soda consumption fell. Bottled water eventually edged it out as America's most popular drink in 2016. Today, the average person has about 22.5 teaspoons of added sugar each day, less than before, but well above the recommendations set out by the American Heart Association (9 teaspoons for adult men, 6 teaspoons for adult women).
“Consumption of total added sugars hasn’t changed that much in the past 45 years," Gaine said.
The reasons likely include the fact that people crave sugar, and it's hard for them to cut back. In addition, many products, such as bread, pasta sauce, ketchup, energy drinks and granola bars, have sugar in them. When consumers think about reducing their intake, they may eliminate a nightly bowl of ice cream or piece of candy, but ignore these other items.
The race to change sugar
Food and beverage manufacturers are listening to consumer demand for healthier items, prompting many companies to develop reduced-sugar or alternative-sweetener options.
Nestle has patented a naturally reconstructed hollow sugar molecule that can reduce how much is used in its confectionery products by as much as 40% without compromising sweetness. The revamped sugar is expected to be incorporated into Nestle products sometime this year.
Rather than restructure sugar like Nestle, Israel-based food technology startup DouxMatok has patented a way to maximize the efficiency of sugar delivery to the taste buds. By enhancing the perception of sweetness, they’re able to reduce up to 40% of the sugar content in baked goods, dairy, chocolate and other confectionery items while retaining the same taste profile.
At Holista CollTech in Australia, the ingredients and wellness products company has filed for a patent for the world’s first all-natural low glycemic index (GI) sugar. The low GI sugar tastes just as sweet as traditional applications, but is digested slower. Unlike artificial sweeteners, this new sugar can be melted, baked and caramelized in cooking.
Nestle and DouxMatok’s creations in particular allow manufacturers to use less sugar, but still get the desired sweetness and consistency. It also has the added benefit of saving companies money by using less of the ingredient — all of which could lead to an increase in sales and profit margins.
These creations could be an ideal way to keep sugar in consumers’ good graces even as demand for and acceptance of natural alternatives is rising.
“Sugar is going to still be desired, and we’ll still be looking for it because we like that sweet taste,” Lester Wilson, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, told Food Dive. “I think though, that because of this obesity issue, I think [sugar consumption] will decrease. But, it takes a long time for people’s tastes to change.”
Moving back to sugar
While consumers don’t want to see sugar as one of the first ingredients on a product’s label, many would prefer it to an alternative sweetener that they don't recognize or can’t pronounce.
Gaine said the number of packages adding a "contains sugar" claim increased 10% in 2017 from a year earlier. The reason for the increased transparency is that more consumers see real sugar as a premium ingredient, so manufacturers are updating labels to reflect its inclusion. Some companies are even turning back to sugar after previously abandoning it in some products.
Coca-Cola switched back to sugar in Vitaminwater after customers took to social media to complain about its new sugar-stevia blend. PepsiCo introduced Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback in 2009, offering consumers a taste of naturally sugar-sweetened soft drinks. The reformulated, limited-time only drinks were such a hit that the company decided to make them a permanent part of its product lineup. And Kraft retooled its original Capri Sun kids drink recipe in 2015 to include sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.
Sugar has a number of advantages that other sweetener substitutes lack, including that they’re easier to work with in manufacturing, most notably in baking and confections. Currently, there is no single ingredient that can be substituted for sugar and duplicate all of its functional properties, according to Gaine. If an alternative sweetener, such as stevia or monk fruit is used, it must be accompanied by at least one other ingredient to help re-create sugar’s sweetness and bulking in a recipe.
“One of the primary ingredients that goes into chocolate and candy is sugar, and for a variety of reasons, it’s difficult to replace that in the candy-making process.”
Vice president of public affairs and communications for the National Confectioners Association
Taste is king when it comes to food. Consumers value reduced-sugar or sweetener substitutes, but only if they can’t tell the difference between the healthier version and the original. Coca-Cola recently created a stevia-sweetened soda that not only has no sugar and zero calories, but lacks the aftertaste prevalent in many products containing the ingredient. Other food and beverage companies have commenced a similar undertaking.
The risk for sugar is that a like-for-like alternative to the popular sweetener comes along. For now, some manufacturers continue to look for ways to give people sugar, just less of it.
The National Confectioners Association is offering consumers more information on how to manage sugar intake, definitions of common candy and chocolate ingredients, how to enjoy treats as part of a healthy diet, and smaller size options.
“The products that our companies make are treats. We’re not a meal replacement,” Christopher Gindlesperger, vice president of public affairs and communications for the National Confectioners Association, said in an interview. “One of the primary ingredients that goes into chocolate and candy is sugar, and for a variety of reasons, it’s difficult to replace that in the candy-making process.”
Many food companies have taken it upon themselves to find ways to curtail sugar in their products. PepsiCo pledged in 2016 that at least two-thirds of its global beverage volume will come from drinks that have 100 calories or fewer from added sugar per 12-ounce serving by 2025. And Stonyfield, the U.S.’s largest organic yogurt maker, announced last February it will reduce added sugars by as much as 40% in some of its lines. To reduce the amount of the sweetener used without hurting the taste, Stonyfield lowered the acidity in its yogurt by focusing on two cultures that produce low amounts of lactic acid.
Perry Cerminara, director of commodities sourcing with Hershey, told Food Dive that the maker of Kit Kat, Reese's and Kisses is offering more smaller-sized portions and planning to have half of its individually wrapped standard- and king-size confectionery portfolio down to 200 calories or fewer by 2022.
“Consumers know that confection is an indulgence made with sugar, and expect it when they are treating themselves to candy," Cerminara said. "We saw the strongest growth last year in our core iconic confection products that have contained the same amount of sugar for years."
Despite efforts by companies to find sugar substitutes or slash the amount of the sweetener they add to their products, consumers continue to want sugar, or at least something that tastes like it. For now, a label announcing a reduction in how much is in the product may help ease their guilt about indulging while still giving them what they want.
"We love sugar," said Bentley, the New York University professor. "The flavor 'sweet' is so compelling and so prominent, that we want to control that, but we don't really know how."