Bombarded by messages related to the optimal course for healthy eating, consumers are always looking for the latest and greatest. With more than three-quarters of adults trying to manage their weight, they are searching for healthy, yet tasty, options, and increasingly, these informed consumers are embracing a low-sugar diet as one of the top eating trends.
Manufacturers now have a new tool to meet these evolving preferences.
Why calorie count matters more than sugar content
Whereas fat was once a diet villain, consumers are recognizing that it improves the taste of food and keeps them fuller longer. "Consumers are realizing that fat doesn't make you fat," said Dr. Cedrina Calder, who practices preventive medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. "In actuality, it's a diet that's too high in calories, combined with a lifestyle that's too low in activity."
That's why consumers who scrutinize labels have a new top concern: Today, 52% scour labels for total sugar, making it the No. 1 consideration over fat and calories. That's because consumers increasingly believe that added sugars in food, rather than fat, lead to weight gain as well as health problems.
And that is a health win, Calder said. "What scientists and medical professionals now know is that a high-sugar diet increases your risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other medical conditions."
But this new awareness can leave manufacturers scrambling to meet consumers' changing preferences. "Much of the added sugar in food is an unintended consequence of earlier efforts to maintain the flavor and texture of foods while slashing fat," said Tom Burrows, CEO of Epogee LLC, the company that manufactures EPG, an alternative-fat ingredient designed to allow consumers to enjoy favorite foods with fewer calories.
"The result is a plethora of mediocre food offerings with inferior sensory qualities and unhealthy levels of added sugar and excess calories," Burrows said.
Taste remains the most important factor for consumers
The great news for manufacturers is that they no longer have to shun fat, because consumers have become more knowledgeable about its benefits. As Calder works with her patients, she urges them to pay attention to the type of fat in the foods they eat. "I educate them to read labels and focus on limiting saturated fat and completely avoiding trans fat."
But this fat renaissance doesn't mean that consumers aren't still focused on how their diet contributes to weight gain. Instead, they're looking to cut calories, while not sacrificing flavor.
Today, the "low calorie" descriptor on foods appeals to nearly half of consumers, compared with only 43% looking for "fat free."
Studies show that while they may consider the overall makeup of foods in their diet, one factor remains constant: Taste is still the top consideration for consumers in the treats they choose.
"I urge patients to focus on quality of food and not calorie counts," Calder said. "A common concern of theirs is that healthier foods may not be as tasteful."
Finding the winning formula
Manufacturers face the puzzle of addressing trade-offs between consumers' desire for a healthier food and one that is still delicious and fulfilling. Including fat in recipes has always been the key to delivering rich flavor, mouth feel, creamy texture and a satisfactory "finish" to food — and yet high levels of fat carry the penalty of excess calories.
Fortunately, they no longer have to compromise, Burrows said. "EPG safely and effectively provides all the sensory advantages of fat, while cutting calories by 92% for each unit of fat replaced."
As manufacturers move forward with new formulations that meet consumer preferences, they will face a daunting task — yet one Burrows feels this new food technology is uniquely qualified to handle. As he explained, just reducing sugar content alone isn't an option, because it yields a wide set of physical and functional changes that must be understood and effectively managed.
"Adding EPG allows the introduction of fat function without adding back fat calories," he said. In product categories where sugar reduction and lower overall calories are the focus, he finds innovators using EPG are achieving richer and more complex flavor palates along with a satisfying mouthfeel.
"We see great opportunities ahead as EPG moves forward in combination with developments in sugar-reduction technology. It can play a key role in the trend toward reduced sugar by helping manufacturers reimagine the possibilities of offering consumers foods they love and simultaneously meeting their health and taste expectations."