Consumers increasingly claim to avoid sweeteners, but purchasing behavior says otherwise

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Consumers claim to avoid sweeteners, but purchases say otherwise

Related tags: Fructose corn syrup, Corn refiners association, High-fructose corn syrup

Before manufacturers reformulate food and beverages in response to consumers’ increasing claims about avoiding sweeteners, they should double check shoppers’ purchasing habits, which betray a different truth, according to new Nielsen and Mintel Consulting research published Feb. 18.

A quarter of consumers now claim to avoid total sugar – up from 21% last year – and the population segment that claims to be most health conscious about food and beverage choices has grown to 19% from 15% since last year, according to the second annual Sweetener360 custom research study commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association, which has a vested interest in high fructose corn syrup sweeteners.

But before food and beverage companies make “needless and costly changes to their product formulations and market strategies”​ to downplay sweeteners, they should look closely at the grocery receipts of the same 15,000 people surveyed in the report conducted in September 2014, said Sara Martens, vice president of The MSR Group and a Sweetener360 research analyst.

That data reveals consumers’ actual purchasing behavior does not align with their touted health values or support reformulation. Rather, each segment of the population continues to buy its share of products formulated with all types of sweeteners, including sugar, HFCS and low- or no-calorie sweeteners, Marten said.

The discrepancy between claimed intentions and actions is “human nature,”​ she said, noting as an example the good intentions and high failure rates of New Year’s resolutions.

Like with New Year’s resolutions, most shoppers' intentions likely were pure, but only about 20% actually reduced the amount of sweeteners they purchased, she said.

This failure to align purchases with intent was most stark among millennials. Of this demographic, 46% agreed with the claim that “it’s worth the sacrifice to pay more for food and beverages with sweetener ingredients that they perceive as better for them,”​ and yet they purchased more than their fair share of HFCS- and sugar-sweetened products, according to the report.

“While [millennials make] 20 percent of all food and beverage purchases, they buy 22 percent of all HFCS-sweetened products and 21.2 percent of all sugar-sweetened products,”​ according to the report.

Price & taste rule

For millennials, like all the population segments surveyed, “when push came to shove it was taste and price that won the day,”​ Marten said.

She noted that five out of the six consumer segments in the report said taste was the most important factor in their food and beverage purchase decision-making, while four out of six ranked price as their second-most important purchase driver.

Not including HFCS specifically made it into the top five purchase influencers for only two consumer segments – the natural shopper and the consumer seeking healthy balance, according to the report.

The absence of HFCS as an influencer in the other population segments suggests the once highly-demonized sweetener may have a lower profile now. This notion is supported by the parallel finding that more than four times as many consumers expressed concern for total sugars compared to HFCS in the most recent study.

In light of these findings, Martin concluded that if manufacturers want to “deliver against true consumer demand,”​ their decisions should be based on measurable purchasing data and not “buzz on what consumers claim to avoid.”

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