An introduction on global consumers and interest in sweeteners was part of the content for Global Food Forums’ 2021 Sweetener Systems Post-Webinar Magazine. Titled “Sweetener Choices Driven by Conflicting Goals,” it was based on data from HealthFocus International.
“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” This often-used quote, taken from the lyrics of a popular song from the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, speaks to a fundamental truth. Sweetness is desirable. In food, beverage and nutritional product formulations, adding ingredients that increase the perception of sweetness has been a common and effective way to address a multitude of flavor and taste issues.
Fast forward to a world of increasing numbers of overweight humans and the related health conditions that accompany that condition. Additionally, better informed consumers link food choices with health. And, occasional, over-reliance on sweeteners as formulation tools has produced a food industry transfixed on sweetener use. It has also produced a growing number of sweetener options.
A HealthFocus® International’s 2020 Global Topic Report titled “Sweetener Solutions: A Path Forward,” based on a 22-country survey on six continents, noted three macro conflicting food and beverage trends. “The overall result is consumer confusion and dissatisfaction with current sweetener options, which are significantly changing shopper behaviors,” says Julie Johnson, General Manager, HealthFocus. This confusion creates challenging market dynamics for sweeteners based on a consumer’s primary driver, which is then influenced by other motivations and influencers.
Attributes of the “clean” trend involve short, clear ingredient lists, real ingredients, no additives or preservatives, no GMO and a transparent supply chain. Hallmarks of the trend toward increased consumer interest in “carbohydrate intake” include calories, weight for health, weight for other reasons and healthy energy. The third trend, “pleasure,” contains the aspects of eating without guilt and enjoyment of simple pleasures in life. “And, if these are a bit sinful in caloric content or fat, this is a victimless crime,” notes the report.
HealthFocus’s “Sweetener Solutions” report goes on to say that consumers rank sugar reduction as the primary way to make processed foods and beverages healthier. The strategy outranks eating clean (e.g., less artificial, non-GMO); removing negatives (e.g., salt or fat reduction); and adding positives (e.g., fortification).
Shoppers do not trust most sweetener options. They continue to search for acceptable sweetener choices, notes Johnson. However, certain natural sweeteners have strong health halos and stand out as significantly better options. For example, 80% of respondents to this global survey say honey is a “good” sweetener, 61% say that of fruit juices and 42% for maple syrup. Some 41% of those surveyed found coconut palm sugar “good;” 32% said so for stevia.
When it comes to sugar, the goal is cutting back and not completely avoiding it. Since 2014, sugar concern is up 15 points, and artificial sweetener concern is up 12 points. But overall, those concerns may be moderating.
When asked, “In the past 2 years have you increased or decreased your use of (with the survey specifically mentioning ‘sugar’ or’ artificial sweeteners’),” the overall usage is rising, with a 26-point decline in those rejecting artificial sweeteners since 2008. When it comes to sugar, the goal is to cut back but not avoid it altogether. For example, 50% of respondents said they did not use artificial sweeteners in 2008; that declined to only 24% saying so in 2020. Similarly, 7% said they didn’t use sucrose in 2008, falling to only 3% saying so in 2020.
— Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell, MSc, MBA, Co-owner, Global Food Forums