NEW ORLEANS — In 2019, sugar and sugar reduction remains a hot topic at IFT19, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo held June 2-5 in New Orleans. While the formulation conundrum and sugar’s major alternatives are buzzing around the show floor, Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, Chicago, reported on the market research’s findings about what consumers really think about sugar and added sugar claims.

Mintel found that between 2014 and 2018, data, dairy-free, G.M.O.-free and sugar claims all had the most growth in new product introductions compared to other health-related claims. This gives us a window into what consumers’ priorities are when it comes to buying food from a health perspective, said Ms. Dornblaser. These three issues — dairy, G.M.O.s and sugar — are higher priorities for consumers right now.  

When it comes to sugar, Mintel found that consumers’ concern isn’t just limited to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. They also are concerned with natural sweeteners, high-intensity sweeteners, caloric and non-caloric sweeteners.

Mintel found 73% of consumers say some sweeteners should be avoided more than others, and that refers to caloric and non-caloric sweeteners. Sixty per cent of consumers said artificial sweeteners are bad for your health, Ms. Dornblaser reported.

Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, discussed consumer perceptions of sugar and added sugar claims.
“Clearly consumers are concerned, but they find themselves in a bit of a pickle because they need to reduce sugar but they aren’t really crazy about caloric sugars and they are really not crazy about non-caloric sweeteners,” she said.

Ms. Dornblaser evaluated how consumers rated three different sugar-related claims: low/no/reduced sugar, sugar-free and no added sugar. Globally, no added sugar was the most popular health-related claim by far, followed by low/no/reduced calories coming in at No. 2. However, when looking at just the U.S. market, those two positions are swapped. No added sugar is seeing steady growth in new product launches in the United States, but low/no/reduced calories takes the first place spot.

“What this says to me is that companies are focusing on calories more than sugar,” Ms. Dornblaser explained. “Consumers in the U.S. are a little concerned that low sugar means low taste.”

In the United States, however, Mintel did show that 48% of U.S. consumers said the no added sugar claim was more appealing than low/reduced sugar.

“If you look back at the new product introductions, you really see that play out,” Ms. Dornblaser said. “Companies are really listening to what consumers want.”

Despite this data, Ms. Dornblaser did caution that “no added sugar” isn’t so straightforward. Consumers remain skeptical of this claim. She found that consumers believe it’s misleading for products containing high natural sugars to be labeled with the no added sugar claim.

“That illustrates a couple of things,” she said. “Consumers have a little bit of a faulty understanding of sugars and added sugars and their differences. But also they get that you can say something has no added sugar and it seems to be implying that there doesn’t have any sugar in it even if it’s a product that is naturally high in sugar.”

With all this data in mind, however, it’s important to keep things in perspective. When looking at yogurt, Mintel found that sugar isn’t having a major impact on purchasing intent. For products that are full sugar, no added sugar or no/low/reduced sugar, Mintel saw there was no difference in purchasing intent for yogurt products.

“So what’s driving consumers to buy either a full sugar, no added sugar or no/low/reduced sugar product?” Ms. Dornblaser asked. “It really still boils down to does the product taste good.”

While consumer attitudes toward sugar may be cold right now, according to the data, the truth remains that consumers don’t make purchasing decisions in a vacuum. They consider a product from all angles in a wider context of their lives, budgets and tastes.

“When consumers are faced with actual products, they are swayed by everything about a product,” she explained. “It’s not just one aspect of formulation. It’s everything that product is about.”