Embracing change: Indulgence in the age of health and wellness

by Ron Sterk
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Todd Hale, a former Nielsen executive, discussed consumer trends at the International Sweetener Colloquium.

ORLANDO, FLA. — Todd Hale, principal, Todd Hale, L.L.C., urged attendees at the International Sweetener Colloquium to proactively address technology and changes in consumer buying habits as a way to drive growth in coming years.

Citing studies and data from Nielsen, Mr. Hale, a former Nielsen executive, said about half of consumers believed they were overweight and were trying to lose weight, consumers were seeking fresh, natural and minimally processed foods, younger consumers were most willing to pay a premium for health attributes, and healthy categories were growing faster than indulgent categories, but there still was room for treats in consumer diets. North American consumers were more likely than consumers in the rest of the world to eat smaller portions, less processed foods and more natural and fresh foods to lose weight, he said.

“Health and wellness is not a passing fad,” Mr. Hale said.

Nearly 60% of Americans indicated they were eating less chocolate and sugar, Mr. Hale said, although chocolate remained a favored indulgent food and was the No. 1 snack globally.

Mr. Hale also noted there often remains a disconnect in what consumers indicate they will do when asked in a survey and what they actually do.

Globally, consumer ratings averaged 41% for those saying all natural, G.M.O.-free, no artificial colors or flavors, made from vegetables or fruits and natural flavors were very important in purchase decisions, yet only 32% were willing to pay a premium for those attributes. Thirty-two per cent of consumers said low sugar/sugar free was very important in making a purchase decision, but only 25% were willing to pay a premium, while 26% said no high-fructose corn syrup was very important, with only 21% willing to pay a premium for no HFCS.

The only attribute in which the “very important purchase decision” matched “willing to pay premium” was in the organic category, with both at 33%.

Younger generations (Generation Z at 20 or younger and millennials at 21-34 years old) were more willing to pay a premium for healthy attributes than were older generations (Generation X at 35-49 and baby boomers at 50-64), Mr. Hale said, even if the younger generations may not always be able to pay the difference.

Mr. Hale said snacks as meal replacement continued to be a growing opportunity for the food industry, noting that snack sales totaled $374 billion in the year ended in March 2014. There are six snacking events compared to three meal times daily, he said.

Although chocolate led the global “top 10” list of snacks, fresh fruit and vegetables followed, with cookies/biscuits fourth and bread/sandwiches fifth. Chocolate was first or second on the favorite snack list in every region globally, with fresh fruit first or second in Europe, Africa and Asia, yogurt first in South America and potato chips first in North America. Cheese was third on the list in North and South America and Europe, with bread/sandwiches third in Africa and vegetables third in Asia.

Sugar sales were down 8% to 10% in the United States, Latin America and Europe in the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, 2014, Mr. Hale noted, with sugar substitutes down 3% to 5% in Europe and the United States but up 2% in Latin America. In the United States, sugar and sugar substitute sales, both on a dollar basis and on a unit basis, have been flat or lower since 2012 after gaining in 2011. Overall, grocery sales have been increasing but at a slower rate on a dollar basis the past four years while unit sales have been flat the past three years.

Over the past four years, retail sales of sugar and sugar substitutes have declined 2.7%, Mr. Hale said, with granulated sugar down 3.6%, sugar substitutes down 2.1%, confectioners sugar down 1.8% and all other sugars down 6.9%, with the exception of brown sugar, which was up 1.5% for the period. At the same time, most key ingredient categories important to sugar were growing. Only frozen sweet goods, certain juices and drinks and diet soft drinks showed declines over the four-year period ended Dec. 27, 2014.

Mr. Hale said food manufacturers need to stay connected with winning retailers and categories, engage in e-commerce and digital shopping, focus on shoppers that matter with precision marketing, drive the health and wellness “wave” and win the “occasion” to drive industry growth during challenging times.

“Don’t sit back and watch the changes happen,” he said.
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