Significant Change in Mindset: Health Motivates Sugar Reduction More than Weight Loss, Says New Kerry Study

A new study from ingredients producer Kerry shows a significant change in what drives consumers in their request for less sugar. Instead of the classic ‘weight loss’ objectives, consumers now say they want sugar reduction to support their long-term health objectives. That opens a world of opportunities for new product development.

“That was a very key <aha!> for us because the expectation would have been, about five years, ten years ago, that sugar reduction would have primarily been driven by weight loss and managing weight,” says Soumya Nair, Director of Consumer Research and Insights at Kerry. “This year, when we did that piece of questioning, we realized there is a lot more focus on proactive health, on wanting to have a more sustained long-term health rather than more of the immediate weight loss goals.”

Nair says that the study – which the company carries out every 5 years, and this year it surveyed 12,784 people across 24 countries worldwide – shows, for the first time, that people are thinking ahead and are more focused on healthy aging and how nutrition is affecting these goals. “That shift with consumers has come slowly but now it is a lot more evident. The 79% of the consumers who globally think that reducing sugar is healthier for them think this not just for long-term health, but it is also for avoiding future medical issues. Considering that they’ve come out of a pandemic, they have gone through a reprioritization of the important aspects in life.” And health comes first .

Intentional Indulgence vs. Mindless Munching

The consumers’ relationship to sugar is more complicated even. While there is a group that wants to experience the same perception of sweetness, but with less calories (that is, the producer to replace sugar with a non-nutritional sweetener), a significant part, a third of them, “were very strongly saying I want to reduce the perception of sweetness,” says Nair. “Which is where you see products that are truly either no-sugar products, like sparkling waters that have taken off lately, or flavored waters without any sugar, so moving away from juice drinks.”

“Sugar is here to stay. “
— Soumya Nair, Director of Consumer Research and Insights at Kerry

The research identified two behaviors that frame people’s relationship with sugary foods and drinks. First there is the intentional indulgence, which is occasion-based eating – family gatherings, late night treats. Then there is the mindless munching, the snacking that takes place during the entire day, at the desk, and consists of candy, cookies or sweet snacks.

What the research team did was to ask participants to rate 20 categories of foods and drinks based on how they consume them (intentional or mindless) and say if they want producers to reformulate them with less sugar. Intentional indulgence products – birthday cakes, cocktails, alcohol in general – are not high on their list for reformulation; as they are occasional treats, consumers prefer to experience the full taste and flavor. But when it comes to soft drinks, snacks, and candy, which they are mindlessly munching throughout the day, they would very much like to contain less sugar. “That’s the frequency talking, so they want to make a conscious reduction in sugar.”

What the researchers frame as a “big shift” is the realization that one sweetener is preferred a lot more than the others. The participants were given a list of 30 sweeteners – both natural nutritive sweeteners like sugar and non-nutritive, like stevia, monk fruit and erythritol – and the results showed that natural sweeteners were the preferred ones. And, above all, sugar and honey. So, “sugar is here to stay”.

On the non-nutritional sweeteners front, the winner is stevia, which is not surprising as it is perceived as a natural product. Stevia is the third preferred sweetener overall and has been rising steadily for the last 10 years. “It used to be such an expensive exotic ingredient and now it’s everywhere”, says Nair, “so I think availability played a significant role, as well as the number of products that can carry it.”

While preference varies with region, because of what is locally available, natural sweeteners maintain their domination. May it be sorghum syrup in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria, palm sugar and coconut sugar in Thailand and Indonesia, date sugar in Saudi Arabia – they all make up a tapestry of natural sugars that come with their own cultural significance. These results come the same week as the World Health Organization’s public statement against artificial sweeteners. WHO concluded that non-nutritional sweeteners don’t help with weight loss and weight control. Their recommendation, for people who want to achieve their health goals, is to simply reduce the sugar intake, favor naturally occurring sugars from fruit and vegetables and choose unsweetened foods and beverages. Consumers’ preference seems to match the international body’s recommendation.

What Does Motivation Mean for New Product Development?

The survey felt necessary, Soumya Nair says, because the pandemic has changed so many people’s priorities and Kerry wanted to see how the newly-found focus on health can lead to better product development. “It’s a wide piece of research to understand what’s really happening and how we inform our business and the industry and formulators application development in the future. What is the right sweetener connotation with the right product category? What’s that cross-section like and why do people want it?”

Knowing that the primary motivation for sugar reduction is health, not weight loss, allows for the development of, for example, products with probiotics or other ingredients that promote the consumers’ long-term health goals.

“It’s not about what you’re purchasing, it’s about what and why,” concludes Soumya Nair.

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