"Sugar reduction is still overwhelmingly important to American consumers as a top healthy priority.
"61% of US respondents in our Global Health and Nutrition survey earlier this year reported actively avoiding sugar from their food and beverages. The figure is slightly higher among older respondent and among female respondents vs. males, but this is a priority that cuts across US demographics," said Telford in FoodNavigator-USA's Low-and-No-Sugar Beverages: From Soda 2.0 to Flavored Waters online event held last week.
Despite the importance of sugar reduction from a public health perspective, consumers are now motivated by a number of other factors to reduce their sugar consumption, Telford pointed out.
"Over the last four years that we’ve been running this [Global Health and Nutrition] survey, weight loss or weight management has actually declined slightly as a reason consumers give us to avoid sugar even as their intent to avoid sugar has remained consistently high over that time frame," said Telford, noting that consumers are citing other reasons for avoiding or reducing sugar such as recommendations from friends and family and social media becoming important motivators and digestive health concerns.
'We don’t see as many diet brands'
The industry has also responded to this shift in consumer motivations, noted Telford.
"We don’t see as many diet brands, that’s not central to the message of zero sugar products anymore. And US palates seem to be changing over this time frame as well. This probably reflects attitudes not just to sugar as an ingredient, but maybe to attitudes overall and how much sweetness we need to see in our food," he said.
Euromonitor research showed that respondents to its survey reported trying to avoid artificial sweeteners in their beverages more than they tried to avoid sugar, added Telford.
"The term ‘artificial’ is a bit of a loaded term, but I think that finding in particular reflects the challenge we have in the industry when it comes to reformulating, potentially working with new sweeteners, some of which might be unfamiliar to consumers," he said.
In addition, top line consumption of sugar per capita (while still high) is declining, said Telford, who attributes the trend to the rise of the packaged water segment (which includes bottled water and seltzers).
"The real driver of sugar reduction with US consumers is that packaged water has largely replaced CSD volume over a long-term basis. Particularly the growth of the seltzer category and the popularization of zero-sugar, zero-sweetener flavored options. From a nutrition perspective, this has clearly had a positive impact even if the industry has quite a long way to go," he said.
"I think this might be changing the consumer standard when it comes to what is an acceptable amount of sugar in drinks. How much is too much? Maybe it’s 10g in a can, maybe it’s 5g, maybe it’s zero."
Olipop: 'Our position is we want them to be health contributory, not just health neutral or less bad'
If consumers are moving away from artificial sweeteners and 'diet' type drinks, what do they want instead?
Speaking on the panel, Ben Goodwin, co-founder and formulator of Olipop, stressed that beverage manufacturers have to meet consumers where they are when it comes to their low- and no-sugar beverage formulations.
"I’ve always tried to come from a place that’s actually most useful to the consumer. Right now we have an overindulgence of sugar especially in liquid form and an under consumption of critical nutrients like fiber and prebiotics. Our position is we want them to be health contributory, not just health neutral or less bad," said Goodwin.
As such, Olipop (a trailblazer in the nice and emerging category of gut health soda), has 9g of fiber and 2g of sugar (sweetened with monk fruit) per can.
Also taking the position of meeting consumers where they are on their sugar reduction journey, zero-sugar and stevia-sweetened soda brand Green Cola is finding that consumers that have left the diet soda category due to concerns over artificial ingredients, are returning because they now have a relatively cleaner option.
"People are moving towards a non-sugar solution much faster than they did in the past. We’re positioned exactly next to the diet cola segment. In the US, what we’ve seen is that the big guys are very strong and in some cases when we’ve been able to get next to them, we’ve seen great velocities. There is a mass reorganization happening on that big shelf of soda," said Manos Eleftheriou, US managing director at Green Cola.
'Diet sodas are about half as bad...'
Asked to weigh in on the recent draft guideline from the World Health Organization (WHO) "suggesting non-sugar sweeteners not be used as a means of achieving weight loss or reducing risk of noncommunicable diseases," Eleftheriou said that stevia is still a relatively new ingredient that shouldn't be completely ruled out as an effective tool for weight management.
"Stevia has been around for 2,000 years plus, but it’s only been in the food and beverage industry for the last 15 years plus, and it’s evolving very fast," said Eleftheriou.
Goodwin added that we can't treat sweeteners as a cure-all for weight loss and other metabolic health concerns.
"Diet sodas are about half as bad, but then the problem is that people think they can drink 5x as many of them. The simple truth is that full-sugar options and chemical-laden options have been perpetrated at mass and have been broadly integrated into the population.
"We can sit in an academic tour all day, but the reality is that we have to actually build products that reach people and ideally are transitory to an even healthier lifestyle for them."
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