VAIL, COLO. — Sustainability, front-of-package labeling and other consumer-related issues are or will be coming to the forefront for the sugar industry, speakers at the 37th International Sweetener Symposium said on Aug. 2
Sustainability “wasn’t on the table” when the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans was completed, said Courtney Gaine, PhD, president and chief executive officer of The Sugar Association, but “the dialogue is getting louder” to include sustainability as part of the 2025 Guidelines. She noted that the definition of what constitutes a sustainable diet is unclear.
“It’s not as simple as carbon emissions,” she said.
Dr. Gaine said the sugar industry received a “summer treat” when the World Health Organization in draft guidance issued recently did not recommend non-sugar sweeteners as a way to control weight.
She also said she expects a push for front-of-package labeling concerning sugars and other ingredients to gain momentum since the United States is sandwiched between Mexico, which has required front-of-package “warning” labels for some time, and Canada, which recently announced such labeling. Front-of-package labeling may be “low-hanging fruit” for regulators, including the possibility of recommendations from the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health planned tentatively for September.
Jack Bobo, director of global food and water policy for The Nature Conservancy, noted several trends related to consumer behavior that could affect sugar, including sustainability, which he said is a trend, not a fad, that matters to consumers, matters to the environment but also should matter to the “bottom line.”
“Sustainability should be good business sense as well,” Mr. Bobo said.
Mr. Bobo noted improvements in greenhouse gas reductions, lower energy use, less erosion, less water use and other gains in sustainable agricultural production over the years, while more than 800 million continue to go hungry, which lead some to claim the food system is broken.
“Things are good and getting better, but not fast enough,” Mr. Bobo said.
Consumers tend to think about sustainability on a local level, which can sometimes have negative effects on a broader or global level, or only see the current situation rather than how things used to be, Mr. Bobo said.
“Local sustainability can be a global disaster,” he said, noting that there were trade-offs.
“Consumers have never cared more nor known less how their food was produced,” Mr. Bobo said.
Mr. Bobo also noted consumer preferences concerning transparency, traceability and other trends, including obesity rates. He noted shifts toward healthier diets, while obesity rates grow.
“People have never known more about food and have never been more obese,” he said.
Transparency today is where food safety was 100 years ago, he said, suggesting that at some point consumers will “assume transparency.”
He encouraged producers and food manufacturers to “stop telling what you do and tell why you do it.”
“Personalize your story,” Mr. Bobo said. “Acknowledge people’s concerns, connect with individuals, and then build trust. Then science can matter.”
Science has to come after trust, not before, he said.“People like to learn things; they don’t like to be told things,” he said.