BY NATALIE KEARSE
RESEARCH DIRECTOR, IPSOS MARKETING
We all do it. We chop and change what we do to be healthy. Overwhelmed by subjective advice and media noise, it’s hard to properly understand the detail of each new health fad and make the right decisions for our own health. The latest villain under the microscope is sugar. Consumers have always known sugar is bad but now they’re being made more aware of levels of sugar in their food and drink choices. The recent government announcement of a tax on fizzy drinks is just the latest development in the increasing media and government focus on sugar and its role in the obesity crisis.
But for food manufacturers, a knee-jerk move towards reduced sugar or sugar-free versions may not be the right response to the war on sugar. For categories driven by indulgence, where higher sugar content is expected, people don’t necessarily want a sugar-free or reduced-sugar option – it would take the fun out of their “treat”. They might even feel mollycoddled if they’re already well aware those foods should only be eaten in moderation, and plan to do so. Increasingly, however, concern is extending to the categories with hidden sugars – such as juices, ready meals and coffees – and especially where it’s unexpected or in higher quantities than expected.
Whilst we’re seeing some appetite for reduced-sugar options, sugar-free products are currently still viewed with scepticism by consumers. The assumption is made that many sugar-free products are full of artificial sweeteners that are unnatural and not “good for you” either.
Crucially, most consumers aren’t currently well informed on the difference between sweeteners. Among those who do know more than most, there is still a tendency to avoid sugar-free products because sweeteners are seen as unhealthy across the board. For these people sugar is seen as the lesser of two evils because at the very least it is a known quantity and to some degree natural. There is some evidence of a group of “hyper aware” people, who have good knowledge of the sweeteners and their differences, such as the benefits of stevia over aspartame, but this is still a small (although potentially growing) contingent.
Manufacturers looking into sugar-free options need to take care to be transparent about what exactly the replacement is. This is a challenge, because of the low awareness and distrust of sweeteners – and they’ll need to be prepared to educate consumers as to why their offering is justifiably a healthier alternative.
Natural cues, flavours and semiotics on packaging may be another way for some brands to guide consumers on whether sugar alternatives are natural and good for you. In the case of Ricola, the Swiss herbal sweets, the packaging is emblazoned with mountains and alpine herbs which offset the unnatural connotations of sweeteners by giving the impression of the product being a natural alternative. This approach needs to be handled carefully, not all brands can get away with asserting natural credentials, and if it’s not done hand in hand with education around the sweeteners used in the product consumers could feel like they are being cheated or misled.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020