Sugar consumption and its effect on public health is an ongoing debate in the media; currently deemed as public enemy number one, no food or drink is safe from the in-depth exposé of the spoonfuls of demon sugar hiding within. Even fresh fruit, juices and smoothies, which we all thought were healthy, contain ‘horrifying’ levels of sugar according to the press. So it was with great interest that I recently attended the FDIN Sugar & Sweeteners Masterclass to hear a variety of speakers review the evidence regarding sugar and its contribution to global health and economy. Public perception, shopping habits, sugar ‘hidden’ in food and drink, what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the sugar and sweetener world and the consumer and industry’s responses to the issue were all topics for the speakers.
I admit that there were some eye-opening moments; finding out that my ‘healthy’ breakfast bar contains as much sugar gram per gram as a packet of digestive biscuits was one of them (guess what my breakfast consists of now!). The amount of ‘hidden’ sugar in foods was a surprise but the use of sweeteners is also controversial. It was interesting to see data presented by Mintel demonstrate that products labelled ‘Low sugar’ and ‘Sugar–free’ were recognised by consumers to be 20% healthier than products labelled ‘Light’ or ‘Diet’, whereas in reality, they all contain sweeteners instead of sugar. In fact, an omnibus survey we ran back in 2012 followed by consumer mini-depth interviews also found that many did not make the connection that choosing ‘Diet’ or ‘Sugar-free’ options meant they were effectively choosing sweeteners, even those who claimed to dislike the idea of sweeteners.
When prompted with ‘artificial sweeteners’ most people spontaneously thought of table-top sweeteners for tea and coffee, such as Splenda. Artificial sweeteners were also readily associated with certain categories, such as carbonated soft drinks, but not with processed foods and ready meals. 31% of consumers said they would actively avoid artificial sweeteners because they are believed to be worse for health than sugar; however, most were uncertain what actually makes artificial sweeteners ‘bad’ for you and consumer perceptions of the health risks of sweeteners appeared to stem from the media rather than directly from medical professionals.
Within sweeteners, aspartame and saccharin were the most commonly spontaneously named sweeteners. Many consumers could not distinguish between sweeteners, but a few made some basic distinctions: Aspartame was seen negatively and a risk to health, whilst sucralose was seen more positively and appeared more natural. Overall though, sweeteners have ‘artificial’ and ‘chemical’ associations indicating that sweeteners derived from more ‘natural’ origins would have more appeal, and the sweetener Stevia was considered to be the most natural sweetener option.
Possibly the most telling conclusion from the Masterclass day was from the final speaker, who, after trying for several years to reformulate his granola product to have 50% less sugar by substituting various sweeteners without success, finally settled on just using less sugar in the product and serving with fruit and yoghurt! Or alternatively, suggested simply making the portion size smaller!
So, there you have it – for more information and to view our sensory study looking at flavours associated with artificial sweeteners please contact us; also tell us of your experiences with sugars and sweeteners – which do you think is the lesser of the two ‘evils’? Get in touch to let us know!Subscribe