LA QUINTA, CALIF. — Sugar is on Americans’ “radar” as 74% of teenagers and adults say they are seeking to reduce or avoid the sweetener completely, yet consumers aren’t “demonizing” sugar, Darren Seifer, executive director, industry analyst of food consumption at The NPD Group, said at the International Sweetener Colloquium held Feb. 25 in La Quinta.
Mr. Seifer said about 64% of those surveyed indicate they frequently check the Nutrition Facts Label for things they are trying to avoid, and about 48% look for sugar, which is the No. 1 item checked on the label, surpassing calories, sodium and fat. Much of his findings came from The NPD Group’s National Eating Trends survey based on point of consumption, not point of sale.
Sixty-four per cent of primary grocery shoppers also consider clean eating synonymous with healthy eating, Mr. Seifer said, with 62% of clean eating followers checking labels for “all natural,” 61% for fresh ingredients and 57% for sugar.
Macro consumption trends showed convenience is coming back, the average restaurant check is rising, and more meals are being eaten at home. Eighty per cent of meals are sourced from home at an average cost of about $3.50 per meal, compared with 20% of meals away from home at an average cost of about $7 per meal, which has risen 14% since 2014.
“As we age, we prepare more meals at home,” Mr. Seifer said. “The population aged 60 to 75 will increase by 6 million over five years, limiting the age momentum for restaurants. Structural changes in the population do not bode well for food service.”
He forecast in-home prepared occasions to increase 4.5% from 2019 to 2024 and commercial restaurant visits to increase only 0.5%. There were 366 billion in-home occasions in 2019 compared with 76 billion commercial restaurant visits.
He noted that at-home meals were not necessarily made from scratch, with convenience gaining strength as Generation Z pushes into adulthood. An indication of increasing demand for convenience was that foods needing no preparation or cooking were gaining in popularity.
In-home foods and beverages that increased in share the most from 2009 to 2019 included bottled water (up 2.2 percentage points), pizza (up 0.8 point), eggs and egg dishes (up 0.5 point) and frozen dinners and entrees (also up 0.5 point). Leading the list of in-home declines in share of occasions were vegetables and legumes (down 1.1 percentage points), carbonated beverages (down 1.2 points), bread/muffins/biscuits/ tortillas (down 1.2 points), milk (down 1.4 points), cold cereal (down 2.0 points), and fruit and vegetable juice and blends (down 2.5 points). Although cereal dominated breakfast with a 24% share of occasions in 2019, it lost four share points since 2013.
Mr. Seifer also said consumers are turning back to sugar and natural sweeteners and shifting away from artificial sweeteners, with sugar gaining 9 percentage points from 2014 to 2017, artificial sweeteners losing 9 points and other natural sweeteners other than sugar, such as stevia, honey, raw sugar and agave syrup, gaining 3 points.
“All generations who are trying to get less sugar consume more natural sugars than those who aren’t trying,” Mr. Seifer said, although he noted that artificial sweeteners have a higher presence among older consumers. He said sugar is chosen an average of 62 times per year to sweeten foods and beverages compared with artificial sweeteners 26 times and natural sweeteners other than sugar 22 times.
Another key trend in snacking was “daypart,” with the share of snacking in the morning increasing over the past 10 years, but snacking in the afternoon and evening decreasing, he said. But the motivation for snacking changes throughout the day, with health giving way to cravings as the day progresses. While taste always had the top rung in reasons to snack, “had a craving for it” moved from the fifth reason of the top 10 motivations in the morning to the second reason in the evening.
Savory has been the top snacking category for more than 10 years, while sweet and better-for-you have been similar in size and direction.
Motivations to snack shift throughout the day. Health and nutrition dominate early, but indulgence dominates in the evening. Indulgence is now about balance and enjoyment, with “permission to enjoy” an evolving concept, he said.
“Despite avoiding sugars, consumers still love a sweet indulgence,” he said. “We love products that have sugar in them, don’t we?”
Findings on consumers’ attitudes about sugar, including snacking and indulgence trends, have convinced some food manufacturers not to reformulate away from sugar, Mr. Seifer said, but may have emboldened them to be more transparent.