Consumer attitudes on sweeteners changing

by Ron Sterk
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Caloric sweeteners currently trending include honey.

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. — Trends in wellness and awareness of natural and artificial sweeteners are affecting consumer attitudes, which often are influenced by headlines, said Matt Wilson, manager of global consumer insights at General Mills.

At the same time, indulgence was not decreasing, “but was overlapping with wellness cues,” Mr. Wilson said at the American Sugar Alliance’s 32nd annual International Sweetener Symposium on Aug. 4 in Santa Ana Pueblo. The Alliance represents sugar beet and cane growers, processors and refiners and allied services.

“Having a few indulgence snacks throughout the week is part of a happy life,” Mr. Wilson said, noting that sweets plus real food were seen as justified indulgences by consumers. “It’s not about the perfect balance of nutrients in every snack,” he said. “It’s about real food. Consumers are looking for foods with inherent benefits.”

“It’s eating like it’s 1941,” Mr. Wilson said, noting that there was more focus on natural nutrition and less on fortification.

Wilson, manager of global consumer insights at General Mills.

“Wellness trends in food are dominating consumer conversations,” Mr. Wilson said. Those trends include the rise of “real food” and “free-froms” as well as natural and fresh, while taste and convenience remain essential. G.M.O. awareness and avoidance were growing.

“G.M.O.s clearly are a hot topic,” he said, “It’s a murky area.” People say they want to avoid G.M.O.s because they are perceived as unnatural, but consumers do not always follow through behaviorally.

The 1980s and early 1990s was the era of fat-free, the late 1990s to about 2010 was the era of “better-for-you” and 2010 forward is the era of “real food,” Mr. Wilson said. Real food implied nothing artificial, he said, noting that there was acceleration in brands moving closer to “real food” that included a comprehensive “No No” list, store brands with banned ingredient promises, removing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, removing high-fructose corn syrup and going non-G.M.O.

That trend included growing consumer avoidance of artificial sweeteners, Mr. Wilson said, adding that headlines often were driving consumer concern. Interest in managing sugar spiked in response to a World Health Organization announcement about reducing sugar consumption and other press reports. Still, he said, consumers’ subjectivity on type and amount of sweeteners varied.

“Consumers are concerned about the overall amount of sugar in their foods,” Mr. Wilson said, “but also differentiate between healthfulness of different types of sweetener. HFCS and aspartame are perceived as artificial and unhealthy. Honey is associated with health benefits.”

Granulated sugar was near the middle of a spectrum in consumers’ view of good for health or bad for health, with honey at the top and coconut sugar, agave, monk fruit and stevia in the top half. On the bottom half of the spectrum were sucralose, erythritol, xylitol, saccharin, aspartame and HFCS.

 “While there is an effort to avoid sugar by many households, it ranks lower on ‘major effort to avoid,’ similar to sodium,” Mr. Wilson said. “Sugar is a matter of moderation rather than a deal breaker.” Lower sugar options may need to deliver on other priority free-from claims, such as gluten, soy, sodium, G.M.O. and artificial ingredients, he said.

Interest in sweeteners with inherent benefits was increasing, Mr. Wilson said.

Maple syrup is currently trending as a sweetener.

Caloric sweeteners “currently trending” included honey, raw sugar cane juice, brown rice syrup, barley malt and maple syrup, he said. “Rising stars” included coconut or palm sugar, sorghum syrup, yacon syrup, raw unpasteurized honey and sucanat. “Down the road” sweeteners included date sugar and lucuma fruit. Caloric sweeteners “falling from favor” included HFCS, corn syrup, refined sugar and agave, he said.

Low or non-caloric sweeteners now trending were stevia, xylitol and erythritol; rising stars were monk fruit and organic stevia leaf; and down the road were protein sweeteners like brazzein and monatin, rare sugars like allulose and miracle berry. Mr. Wilson saw sucralose and truvia blend as low or non-caloric sweeteners falling from favor.

“Emerging sweeteners are judged on naturalness, glycemic index or calorie count and any positive nutrition they may bring,” Mr. Wilson said. “Positioning and processing play a big role in judging ‘naturalness’.”

“While natural sweeteners carry a positive halo, F.D.A.-proposed ‘added sugar’ labels may lower subjective differences,” Mr. Wilson added. The Food and Drug Administration in July proposed adding the per cent daily value to its previous proposal to include added sugars on Nutrition Facts Panels.
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