Perfecting Sweetness

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 27 No. 5
Volume 27
Issue 5

Consumers want reduced sugar but are they committed to act on it?

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The consumer demand for reduced sugar options is challenging manufacturers to deliver less sugar without compromising taste. Numerous strategies exist to accommodate these demands; alternative sweeteners among them. But what’s the right choice? Nicole Staniec, vice president of Beverage Products for Virginia Dare (Carteret, NJ) says that blending different sweeteners is a common and effective strategy, particularly when working with natural high intensity sweeteners such as stevia or monk fruit.

“I would say that developers are definitely looking at combinations. Although different sweeteners have made claims about how good this one tastes versus that one, I don’t think there’s any one single high intensity sweetener that tastes exactly like sugar,” explains Staniec. “So, we find that when combined the sweeteners tend to have a better temporal profile, their time intensity curve is more similar to sugar. When you use sweeteners in combination, often you’re using lower levels of either of them, so you’re contributing less off notes because you have lower levels, so it’s a good strategy.”

Natural high intensity sweeteners have certainly come a long way, with major technological advances improving their functionality and removing those dreaded off notes. Formulators have accomplished incredible things tacking challenges in taste and texture, but according to FMCG Gurus, there still remains a challenge of capturing and retaining consumers even though they say they want reduced sugar options.

“FMCG Gurus research conducted in 2023 found that 59% of consumers were looking to moderate their sugar intake within the food sector to some extent, whilst 58% said this in relation to beverages,” says Kate Kehoe, a marketing executive at FMCG Gurus. “However, many consumers admit that they can struggle to reduce intake of sugar in the long-term. Moreover, whilst 48% say they find natural sweeteners appealing, only 28% say they seek out such sweeteners and of those that do, it tends to be more skewed towards impulse/indulgent categories.”

So, what gives? Well, it seems that consumer perception about the flavor of natural high intensity sweeteners remains somewhat negative. Kehoe cites figures that indicate 65% of consumers believe reduced sugar products are not as tasty as full sugar products. “Consumers are not fully convinced about the sensory appeal of natural sweeteners (even some of those who find them appealing) and will tend to do so more to alleviate guilt when seeking out indulgences rather than fundamentally changing their behavior,” says Kehoe.

There appears to be a contradiction between consumer intentions and their actions, because despite having a more positive perception about natural sweeteners from a health and sustainability perceptive, taste is still a concern and potentially affecting purchasing decisions.

“Overall, stevia is the alternative sweetener that consumers have tried (and some of the legacy issues surrounding this ingredient can go some way to explaining why consumers are not convinced about the taste of products). In comparison, consumers are considerably more likely to have sampled aspartame and high fructose corn syrup, compared to sweeteners such as monk fruit and pomegranate,” says Kehoe. “This further serves to highlight some of the challenges faced within the industry – even if consumers have favorable perceptions of certain sweeteners, they are more likely to turn to sweeteners deemed less healthy because they are more widely available/deemed tastier.”

Flavor, as is so often the case with healthier alternatives, is paramount. This, however should not discourage innovation and new product development in this space. Consumers have become more demanding because the industry has continuously improved. Their expectations are higher, and though their concerns about natural high intensity sweeteners may be regressive, the opportunity to change their mind is there. But Kehoe warns, “Brands should apply caution when looking to reformulate products or launch NPD with significantly lower sugar content than market equivalents, only doing so when they can feel fully reassured products that contain alternative sweeteners can match consumer expectations from a taste and enjoyment perspective."

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