More Americans are avoiding sugar – but what do they want instead for sweetness?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

More Americans are avoiding sugar – but what do they want instead for sweetness?
More Americans say they are cutting back on sugar as their collective awareness rises about the prevalence and potential health impact of the ingredient, but those who still want something sweet are not clear on what the best option is, according to new research from Nielsen.

According to the consumer research firm’s Annual Healthcare Shoppers survey published April 17, 57% of consumers report that low-sugar is important in deciding what to buy for their households, which is up from 55% last year, Katherine Allmandinger, manager of strategic insights at Nielsen Health & Wellness, told listeners of FoodNavigator-USA’s recent Sweeteners and Sugar Reduction Live Forum​ on April 18. [Editor’s Note:​ If you missed the live event, you can still catch it on demand by clicking here​.]

She added that rising consumer concern about sugar also is illustrated in the rising popularity of many of diets that consumers say they are following.

“The recent survey results show 13% of people say they follow a specific low-sugar diet and 5% said they follow a diabetic diet, and many of the other popular lifestyle diets, such as paleo and keto and Whole30 and Atkins are growing and steering consumers away from sugar,”​ she said.

She attributed this increase in part to public health efforts to raise awareness about sugar content, such as some governments’ taxes on sugar sweetened products and the upcoming addition of an added sugar line to the Nutrition Facts panel. But, she added, rising rates of diabetes also plays a significant role in shoppers’ decision-making process.

“One in five households has a diabetic member who is either pre-type I or II and having a diabetic family member definitely has an impact on how we shop and the things we put in our car,”​ she said.

Allmandinger also noted that the consumers who are most concerned about sugar tend to be older, but even a significant portion of younger shoppers say they are worried. Specifically, she said, of the 57% of shoppers who said low sugar is an important influencer in what they buy, 64% are over the age of 55 and 49% are under the age of 35 years.

Consumer are checking labels

Many shoppers who want to avoid sugar are turning to product claims and the Nutrition Facts panel to help them decide what to buy, Allmandinger said.

She noted that 46% of Americans said that claims on food packages influences their purchasing decisions across categories. Specifically, she said, products making low-glycemic claims grew 9% in the past year while products making no-sugar claims were up 3% and products with less sugar were up 2%, which is slightly higher than the growth total for food and beverage products overall.

Even though consumers are looking for these claims and buying products with them, nearly a quarter said they do not trust sugar marketing claims. Rather, Allmandinger said, “consumers are more engaged in actually picking up that package, turning it over and finding out for themselves if that product is right for them and their families”​ based on the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list.

What do consumers want instead of sugar?

Just because consumers are avoiding sugar, doesn’t mean they don’t want something sweet. But based on the results of Nielsen’s research, it isn’t clear which alternative sweeteners consumers prefer. However, “in most cases it is natural sweeteners that are winning,”​ Allmandinger said.

She reported that 54% of consumers are avoiding artificial sweeteners, which aligns with the larger clean label movement that is sweeping the food and beverage industry. As such, foods and beverages that contain artificial sweeteners are down 2%. More specifically, sucrose is down 3% and products with aspartame are similarly down as are those with high fructose corn syrup.

On the natural sweetener side, some options are doing better than others, Allmandinger said.

“We see products containing monkfruit and honey had flat sales from a year ago, while products with stevia as an ingredient are growing 12% year over year. But if you dive into it a little bit further, if you think about ingredients like monkfruit and honey, while they are flat across the store, they are also experiencing strong growth in specific categories,”​ Allmandinger said.

“Honey, for example, is growing in frozen prepared foods and ice cream and bacon and cookies, and monkfruit is seeing a lot of success in frozen desserts,”​ she said, adding, “So, shoppers are looking by category and it definitely varies in terms of their sweetness and sweetener preference.”


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