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Study shows how sugar reduction can meet consumer needs

May 14, 2023May 14, 2023

In a global survey, Kerry found people are looking for other sweeteners to preserve their long-term health, and increasingly want natural solutions.

Consumers have been interested in cutting down on the amount of sugar they eat and drink for decades. But in recent years, their primary reason for doing so has not been to lose weight, Kerry found through new consumer research.

Soumya Nair, global director of research and insights at Kerry, said consumers are cutting back on sugar for their long-term health. Seven in 10 respondents said they are reducing their sugar consumption to live a healthier life, and almost six in 10 want to avoid future medical problems.

"The dominance of sugar reduction in every consumer's life [means] it's not a niche requirement anymore," Nair said. "It's not a sect of consumers who are like, ‘We should all reduce sugar’ — the influencers, the adventurous, the frontrunners of health are not the only ones who are talking about it. Sugar reduction has just become part and parcel of everyone's lives now."

The consumer research, which Kerry conducted in late 2022 by surveying more than 12,000 people across 24 countries, provides a roadmap for food manufacturers to follow as they reduce sugar in their products.

Survey respondents told the ingredients giant about their sweetener preferences and how they vary across different products, their relationship with sweet food and drink and how their perceptions are changing.

But consumers still value sugar. Nearly two-thirds of global consumers think sugar is important in food and drink because it tastes good.

However, 77% say the kind of sweetener in products is important to them. Nair said about 30% of consumers are looking for strictly no-sugar options.

Kerry has seen all of the manufacturers it works with grapple with the question of sugar reduction, Nair said. "There are a lot more sweeteners out in the marketplace — and choices for consumers — than there ever has been."

While most people say they want less sugar in their food and drink, what they actually want is much more nuanced, according to Kerry.

The same consumers who wanted to reduce their sugar intake in items they consume daily, such as juice, also told the ingredients maker they are interested in sweet indulgences.

For items that provide more of an emotional indulgence, such as ice cream or a chocolate with a cup of coffee, consumers tend to think less about the amount of sugar in the product.

"There was still a desire for sugar reduction, albeit comparatively lesser," Nair said.

In the last several years, with a global pandemic and economic hardships, indulgent food and drink has become extremely important to consumers. And it makes sense that people are less concerned with its sugar content.

North Americans are the least likely to think that reduced sugar food and drink taste the same as full sugar options, according to Kerry.

In the U.S., less than half of consumers had a desire for reduced sugar chocolate, candy, soft drinks and cookies, the research showed. Just over half — 52% — wanted reduced sugar ice cream or frozen yogurt.

Kerry's survey showed consumers worldwide are most interested in natural sweeteners.

In the U.S., nearly seven in 10 say natural sweeteners are their preference. And, like consumers worldwide, their preferred natural sweetener is honey — with 54% saying it is their sweetener of choice.

Nair said this likely comes from consumer recognition of honey as a natural sweetener and the health halo that comes with it. However, she said, when consumers were asked how they felt about honey as a sweetener in specific products, including soft drinks, baked goods or ice cream, they were less enthusiastic about their preference.

Just over half of U.S. consumers said sugar is a preferred sweetener, but others are gaining popularity. Three in 10 said maple syrup is a top sweetener, while a quarter said they are most interested in stevia.

Nair said the preference for stevia, which is relatively high in the U.S, likely comes from the gradual and more widespread exposure consumers have had to the product, as well as ingredient companies and food scientists working to improve stevia's taste and performance.

Because of stevia's appearance in an array of products, most consumers today know it is a natural sweetener. They also are likely to be aware of its positive aspects, including being calorie-free.

In the last decade, Nair said stevia has experienced 14% growth. Looking at new product launches, the natural sweetener grew 38% in the last 20 years.

While there seems to be a gap between what consumers say they want in terms of sugar reduction and the products they pick up, Nair said that is narrowing, and manufacturers should work toward sugar reduction for a couple of reasons.

Consumer desire to eat and drink items that promote long-term health will only grow. Kerry found that survey respondents by age group, ranging from Gen Zers to baby boomers, felt the same about health risks of sugar consumption, including diabetes, high blood pressure and increased risk of a heart attack.

Sustainability — from both an environmental and human rights standpoint — is becoming more important to consumers, Nair said. Recent media reports have showcased human rights abuses among workers in sugarcane fields. Two-thirds of consumers want more sustainable food and drink options, she said, and manufacturers should take a close look at their ingredients to meet that desire.

"I would say don't consider sugar reduction purely because of the tangible kind of changes," Nair said. "Also consider the message you’re sending out, because you can link sustainability and sourcing of it as well."