Which sweeteners do consumers prefer? Kerry reveals new survey findings.

August 28, 2018
Sebastian Krawiec

Research by Kerry ranks honey as consumers’ most preferred natural sweetener, followed by sugar, maple syrup, stevia, and agave.

A new white paper draws insights into which sweetening agents consumers prefer, according to a survey of 760 American consumers. Kerry (Beloit, WI), a taste and nutrition company, commissioned the survey.

Preference for sweetening agents depended on perceptions of how natural the ingredient is as well as consumers’ awareness of the ingredient. Kerry surveyed consumers about 17 sweetening agents. Honey was the most preferred sweetening agent, with the highest perception of naturalness. Sugar and maple syrup were tied for natural perception, though sugar was more preferred. Interestingly, respondents also had negative perceptions of some popular natural sweeteners due to perceived artificiality or poor awareness. For example, stevia was only perceived as natural by 46% of surveyed consumers, while 54% of respondents said it is artificial. However, stevia also had a high level of awareness (58%), thereby placing it in the top four preferred sweetening agents. By contrast, monk fruit was among the bottom three preferred sweeteners, suffering from 15% awareness-but, interestingly, 77% of those aware of monk fruit perceive it as natural.

The most-preferred sweeteners:
• Honey (64%)
• Sugar (59%)
• Maple syrup (31%)
• Stevia (22%)
• Agave (13%)

The least-preferred sweeteners:
• Erythritol (1%)
• Acesulfame K (2%)
• Monk fruit (3%)
• Sorbitol (3%)
• Xylitol (3%)

Besides the type of sweetener used, consumers are also looking at grams of added sugar and the number of calories. One-third of those surveyed believe that sugars are a source of calories most likely to cause weight gain and employ a variety of methods to reduce sugar consumption. For example, 36% of surveyed consumers prefer cooking at home, 33% employ portion control, 28% buy fewer packaged foods and beverages, 28% opt for reduced-sugar foods and beverages, 19% switched to alternative sweeteners, and 17% avoid sugar altogether.

The lowest number of calories was one of the most important influencers in purchasing decisions, specifically 50 calories or less. Because portion control was one of the ideal ways to reduce sugar, offering smaller portion sizes with low calories may be a good option for product formulators trying to appeal to consumers, the report says. Of course, meeting low-sugar demands will not be easy. For example, utilizing the survey’s most preferred sweetener, honey, has its challenges as honey can have limitations in terms of taste and consistency, not to mention the cost of a product when one considers the lower availability of honey. Replacing or reducing sugar in general presents its own challenges to taste and texture, requiring some trial and error for formulators to find the right combination of sugar and sugar alternatives to not only meet demand for less sugar, but maintain the taste and sweetness of products.

“Our research helps us better understand consumer awareness of various sweetening agents and their preferences across various product categories,” said Soumya Nair, director of marketing insights for Kerry in a press release. “Understanding the underlying triggers to sugar reduction and staying ahead of these evolving consumer behaviors helps us better innovate and develop focused and consumer-driven solutions for our customers.”

According to Kerry’s research, as more consumers seek to incorporate clean-label products into their diet, sweetness has become a considerable factor in purchasing decisions, specifically the type of agent used and the amount of sweetness in the product. The firm reports that 71% of consumers read the sugar content on nutrition facts labels and that 46% strongly want to reduce their sugar consumption.

This has been a growing trend with a reported 17% decline in the daily consumption of sweetening agents between 2000 and 2016. Companies have been responding to this trend. In 2017, according to the Consumer Goods Forum, 68% of companies reported reducing sugar in their products, a 12% increase from the previous year. On product labels there has been a growth in claims such as “no artificial sweeteners” (4.4% compared to one year ago), “no added sugars” (2.6% compared to one year ago), and “low/no/reduced sugar” (47% compared to five years ago).