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Sweet success can be tricky

Consumer behaviors around sugar and natural sweeteners.jpg
Recently, it seems consumers are moving on from their concerns about fat and taking a closer look at their sugar intake.

It’s been a few decades since the U.S. nutritional guidelines on fats were established, advising consumers to avoid or limit their intake. When marketers responded with low-fat options, many of these products added sugars to improve the flavor profile that the fats once provided. More recently, however, it seems consumers are moving on from their concerns about fat and taking a closer look at their sugar intake.

NPD’s Dieting Monitor asks adults which items they’re trying to cut down on or avoid completely in their diets. Fat has topped that list since the service was introduced. In 2014, for the first time, sugar narrowly edged out fats for the number-one spot on the list. This shift is largely due to less concern about the health impact of fats; 10 years ago, about 75% of adults wanted to avoid fat, but in 2018, that figure dropped to about 64%. Today, more than 70% of adults want to cut down on or avoid sugars in their diets.

This intention to avoid sugars is evident in some of the categories growing and declining in Americans’ food consumption. While cold cereal remains the top item consumed at breakfast thanks to its convenient preparation and clean-up, eggs command greater share of breakfasts today vs. a decade ago. While U.S. consumers are not quite consuming eggs at the same frequency as in the 1980s (when cholesterol was just starting to make its way into the vernacular), this increase at breakfast represents a shift away from simple carbohydrates and toward more protein-based items.

There is also a move away from sugars at snack time. Since 2006, NPD data have shown a slow but steady decline in sweet snack food consumption, which includes candy bars, donuts and chocolate candy. At the same time, more consumers now reach for products such as protein bars, fresh fruit and yogurt. And consumption of meat snacks among adults has grown as they provide consumers the “sweet” spot they seek—low in sugars, high in protein, convenient, tasty.

One might conclude consumers want it all—their collective sweet tooth satisfied while avoiding the sugar at the same time—and therefore sugars should be replaced with alternative sweeteners. That, however, will take some time and education for consumers. Even for the natural low-calorie sweetener stevia, fewer than 40% of U.S. adults are or would consider using it, NPD data show. While that’s higher than artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or saccharine (26% and 22%, respectively), it still shows a resistance to sugar substitutes. Use of stevia and other natural low-calorie sweeteners has been rising slowly over the last decade, however, indicating consumers are slowly accepting these options as viable substitutions while artificial sweeteners have been declining.

And using natural ingredients seems to be the nexus of consumer demands even when it’s time to indulge and helps to explain why sugar is still preferred despite the desire to remove it from the diet. Sugar, regardless of its demonization by consumers, is natural, plant-based and makes foods taste good. Providing sweet foods is a tough needle to thread today because while there might be an ingredient that consumers are trying to avoid, they still want it when they give themselves the permission to indulge. They would rather have the sugar, which might add pounds to their waistlines, versus an ingredient that is unnatural.

Of course, sweet foods won’t entirely be a thing of the past. After all, there’s a reason consumers still eat ice cream, chocolate and confections—the taste. However, it seems consumers are reserving them for specific times and occasions rather than considering them everyday options. Consumers are more likely to consume sweet snack foods toward the end of the day when they’re looking for a treat or a reward for themselves, such as after a long day at work. Marketers of sweetened foods or beverages should examine whether it makes sense to find ways to lower their products’ sugar content or communicate to consumers about being the perfect solution for when they are more open to consuming sweet products.

The NPD Group continuously monitors shifts in consumption patterns, arming the industry with input for fact-based decisions about where to focus their long-term strategies. To learn more about the topics discussed here, contact Darren Seifer at [email protected]


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