food and beverages

Sweeteners & Sweets: New Attitudes, New Strategies

Cookies-BBWhen it comes to sweeteners and sweets, Americans have increasingly complex and conflicted “avoidance versus indulgence” attitudes, confirms a new white paper from The Hartman Group.

On one hand, people frequently report that they’re trying to eat healthier and avoid sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – which, along with pressure from government and consumer groups, has caused food and beverage manufacturers to launch unprecedented numbers of reduced-sugar and sugar-substitute products, as well as seek new ways to alter consumer perceptions of sugar. 

On the other hand, Hartman sees people “pursing premium sweet indulgences with greater delight and abandon than ever before.”

The key word there is “premium,” stresses the paper, “Sweetener Wars: Refining the Treat.”

Candy and sweet foods and beverages have been commoditized in consumers’ minds by these items’ ubiquity. That, combined with health concerns, has caused growing numbers to “save up” or “ration” sugar intake for special foods or beverages that are particularly noteworthy, rather than turn to the “soulless convenience store candy bar,” report the researchers.

Examples: indulgent foods to “feed the soul” (e.g., dark chocolate); ritual foods (e.g., wine after work, wedding cake, restaurant desserts); and comfort foods for reward or “therapy” (e.g., ice cream). Soda made with “real” sugar and “gloriously complex” cupcakes are also increasingly popular indulgences. 

Hence, the increasing number of “premium, unique” indulgent food and beverage offerings. Small sweets with high-quality ingredients like European butter (high in butterfat), eggs in their whole form (not absent of their deeply hued yolks), and sweeteners of the real and honest variety, such as maple syrup and deep brown muscovado sugar, are on the rise, according to Hartman. 

In particular, Hartman notes the popularity of “mini” or bite-size treats and desserts that encourage portion control while avoiding “diet” ingredients or non-sugar sweeteners. “Consumers want a big taste in a small package and are willing to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients and preparations” -- and also appreciate the lower price points of mini treats, the report stresses. 

For example, some Whole Foods Market bakeries offer tiny vegan cupcakes using good-for-you coconut oil, as well as not-so-vegan French classics (like éclairs, ganache tarts, and cream puff minis) and miniature versions of classic sandwich cookies. Similarly, Starbucks Petites, offering indulgence at under 200 calories each, for $1.50, have become a hit.

Hartman emphasizes that food and beverage makers, restaurants and retailers should be aware that higher-quality chocolate is increasingly seen as part of a healthy lifestyle; that fresh, “real” and less processed are the foundations for “permissible indulgence” (this includes raw and least-processed forms of sweeteners, such as raw honey); and that global and novel flavors appeal to the growing number of curious and adventurous palates. 

“Functional and better-for-you should not be your message: Instead, rely on fun and playful product narratives and highlight quality ingredients,” and offer “re-imagined packaging with clever design,” the researchers advise.

The report also offers numerous statistics about how consumers view sugar and sweetened products. 

For example, language analysis of how people talk about these reveals that from their perspective, sugar is a product that is:

* Addictive. Sugar contributes to “highs and lows” and is hard to break free from.

* A contributor to health problems. Many different ailments and diseases, ranging from tooth decay to obesity, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, are attributed to sugar consumption.

* In everything. As taught especially by low-carb diet plans (e.g., Atkins), consumers have learned that a number of products contain not only sugar but HFCS and other sweeteners. (Consumers also state that sugar is “banned” from low-carb diets.)

At the same time, people perceive sugar as being “OK on occasion.” 

Furthermore, Hartman confirms that “watching” or “reducing” sugar intake is a common strategy deployed to reduce caloric intake related to weight management goals; manage or avoid disease (diabetes, heart disease); stabilize blood sugar spikes; and manage mood and performance. While 52% cite “trying to lose weight” as a reason for avoiding sugar, 58% cite “trying to prevent future health conditions” and 79% say it’s better for their overall health.

When it comes to ranking important health-related attributes of beverages, 55% cite “ingredients I recognize”; 53% cite “lower in calories”; 51% cite “made with simple, real (or natural) ingredients”; 49% cite “no added sugars”; 49% cite “higher in nutrients, e.g. protein, fiber, whole grains, Omega-3”; 48% cite “no HFCS”; and 46% cite “absence of artificial sweeteners, e.g. aspartame, Splenda, saccharin.” 

Also, asked which foods containing sugar they avoid when buying for their children, 62% of moms cite beverages, 58% cite food for school lunches, 55% cite snacks, 49% cite treats to eat at home, and 25% cite foods to eat with friends. 

The paper, which also includes numerous other statistics/insights on consumers’ views of sweeteners and sweets, can be downloaded from Hartman’s site

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