Despite a trend toward reduced sugar consumption in the US, many Americans are still getting far too much added sugar in their diets. But how do consumers really feel about sugar? And how should manufacturers address sugar and sugar reduction efforts on labels? A communication strategist and marketing industry vet shared some insights during the recent IFT Wellness show in Chicago.
Recent data from the NHANES tells us that overall sugar consumption is trending down. Indeed from the 1999-2000 range to 2007-08, daily sugar consumption among US consumers fell from 110 grams to 76 g. “That’s a pretty big drop,” Rachel Cheatham, PhD, CEO and president of food product and ingredient consultancy Foodscape Group LLC. The only caveat? That number is still triple a day what women need, and double what men need, she added.
Public health officials’ efforts to draw more attention to sugar consumption have manifested in the proposal to include a line for added sugars on the FDA’s proposed Nutrition Label update , which has drummed up controversy around how usable the term is for manufacturers and whether consumers will even understand what added sugar is.
“From a practicality standpoint, it will be interesting to see how challenging added sugars are for manufacturers to figure out,” Dr. Cheatham noted. “If you produce strawberry yogurt, for example, but you source strawberries from different places throughout the year so the sweetness level varies, does that mean you’ll have to change the amount of added sugar on your food label three times a year?”
Nevertheless, conversations about sugar are on the rise. Citing December 2013 data from Canadean, Dr. Cheatham said that of the 30,000 online articles, blog posts and forum discussions on sweeteners, 58% focused on stevia, 28% on aspartame and 14% on sucralose.
Interestingly, she noted, about half the online conversations on sucralose were negative, “and yet, Splenda as a brand was recognized positively,” she said. “This has to do with the whole aspect of branding and messaging. The consumer recognizes the name they trust and they simply like it better.”
Social media influencers can have far-reaching impact
She also pointed to her own analysis of trending sweetener topics on Twitter via TweetDeck, noting that the highest volume of related conversations contain the hashtag #stevia, with mixed positive and negative messages. Other topics catching attention include #monkfruit (though with less frequent, albeit mostly positive mentions) and #artificialsweetener (higher volume than monkfruit, and noted as a swap for stevia).
While many of those participating in these discussions are seemingly unknown, Dr. Cheatham noted that they can still shape the discussion on social media. “At the end of the day, @Susan is impacting how many of our customers see an ingredient like stevia,” she said, pointing to one user who’d linked to an article about stevia myths in her Twitter feed. “On some level, this person is an influencer. You may think you know who the influencers are already. But people on social media can be, too. Do a little hashtag search, poke around a little and see what’s trending.”
Likewise as consumers continue to demand more natural-sounding ingredients, plant-based sweeteners are rising in popularity. And yet, controversy and confusion abound when it comes to the word “natural” (sometimes at the expense of naturally derived ingredients themselves—ascorbic acid, anyone?).
Know what your brand stands for and lead with it
Thus, Dr. Cheatham said it’s crucial to determine your message hierarchy (and what matters most to your customers) when it comes to sweeteners.
“Determine your message hierarchy, whether it’s taste, value, sweetness, enjoyment, etc.,” she said. “Know what your brand stands for and lead with that. If it’s the sweet sugar taste, talk about sugar. If you’re using a mix of sweeteners and don’t want to call attention to all of them, talk about taste more than sugar. Decide your direction up front and decide it internally.”
Among the examples she provided were Minute Maid Light, a line of fruit drinks made with a blend of high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame and ace-K that are marketed as having 85% fewer calories than regular fruit drinks. “The emphasis is on calories; there’s no mention of sugar at all on the label or on their website,” Dr. Cheatham noted.
Hawaiian Punch’s Aloha Morning juice line, on the other hand, calls out that it’s made with 40% less sugar on the label (using a blend of HFCS and sucralose), though the sugar message is downplayed on the brand’s website, which talks primarily about the “deliciousness” of the product.
Zevia, a zero-calorie soda made with a blend of natural sweeteners erythritol, Reb-A (stevia) and monkfruit—is “going for broke” when it comes to transparency and labeling.
“It’s all over the label, their website and on their social media channels. They’re in your face with their ‘make the smarter choice’ campaign, even getting into some of the deeper culinary explanation of their ingredients.
"But it plays to natural-minded consumers who want plant-based sweeteners, and who want upfront information and transparency. Whatever track you take, it's important to align your brand’s sweetener messaging with the naturality temperament of the target consumer.”