Becki Arnold shares her thoughts on the hot topic of reducing sugar intake…
We have been bombarded with stories about the evils of sugar recently and it seems it has barely been out of the media. The latest announcement is that Public Health England has launched the ‘sugar swaps‘ campaign as part of the Change4Life initiative, encouraging families to swap high sugar foods and drinks for healthier alternatives.
The need to reduce our sugar intake is well documented, mostly due to the risk of tooth decay and obesity (causing heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes), but is this something that people are concerned about and willing to act on? Is this the best way of helping or are there more things the government and manufacturers should be doing? At Marketing Sciences, we have been researching the big sugar & sweetener debate for a while now and have been looking into these questions and more.
Is there the motivation for people to reduce sugar intake and invest in the sugar swapping initiative?
Well yes. A third of people are concerned that they eat too much sugar, with the young (18-34) being most worried. Furthermore, around half of us view sugar with as much concern as fat, being unable to decide whether sugar is worse for your health than fat and calories.
However, motivation does not always equal action and we know that habits are difficult to break. It has long been said that you need to do something for 28 (or 21) days straight to cement a new habit, but in fact, a new study by UCL psychologist Philippa Lally has said this should actually be around 66 days! This also varies by the habit itself and eating and drinking habits are surely among the hardest to break, being ingrained since childhood and reinforced on a daily basis.
In a study we conducted about the ‘Eatwell plate’, comments such as “At my age I know what is healthy and what’s not. I read articles for enjoyment / interest but not for actual advice” and “I will listen to the message but it might not alter my living…I tend to just eat what I feel like” illustrate what a tough job it is to change people’s habits.
So, how do we implement a change?
We asked people whether they would support a tax on sugar and unsurprisingly more people disagreed (38%) than agreed (30%). Instead, consumers are looking to manufacturers to drive changes. Around three quarters (72%) of consumers feel that manufacturers need to do more to reduce the amount of sugar in food and drink. This desire for manufacturers and brands to lead this change is also reflected in claimed purchasing behaviour. Around half (47%) now actively look for brands with lower sugar content.
How can manufacturers answer this call for reduced sugar products? Historically, manufacturers have used artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, when they’ve wanted to offer low sugar products. However, these artificial sweeteners are becoming less popular with consumers. In our online study conducted with over 2000 people in August 2014, 38% of consumers in the UK avoid artificial sweeteners as they are seen as worse for your health than sugar, which is a significant increase from 31% in 2012. There does appear to be an opportunity for diet products if artificial sweeteners are replaced with natural sweeteners. 2 in 5 (40%) claim they would buy more diet products if they used naturally occurring sweeteners rather than artificial ones.
However, consumers are not calling for universal reductions in sugar content across all categories. When it comes to treats, the majority (57%) agree that taste is more important than sugar content! Therefore, manufacturers need to ensure that taste is not affected when sugar content is reduced, particularly in this ‘treats’ category. Sweeteners often have flavours or aftertastes that need to be counteracted by other ingredients. Our sensory panel demonstrated that taste and mouth-feel are both affected by the replacement of sugar with sweeteners, especially the quality of sweetness, bitterness and astringent mouth-feel. They also found that natural sweeteners such as Stevia can have a more artificial flavour than traditional artificial sweeteners and therefore are not currently the perfect answer.
A future for sugar swapping?
In our opinion, the ‘sugar swaps’ initiative stands a good chance of success, given the right publicity and buy in from consumers. The strengths of the campaign are the focus on children, enabling good habits to be formed rather than trying to break old habits, and the strong motivation coming from recent publicity around sugar’s impact on our health. However, our research suggests that the campaign cannot work alone. Our eating and shopping habits are just too ingrained and people recognise that the easiest way of reducing sugar is if the products we buy have less sugar in them. The focus is therefore on the manufacturers, who have the difficult task of reformulating products while ensuring they taste as good and without using too many artificial sweeteners!Subscribe