It’s hard to imagine a nutrient that’s been more demonized than sugar, so it’s no surprise that reducing the sugar content of food and beverage formulations is a mandate for many product developers. But how low can a product formulator go without affecting consumer preferences? Experts assembled for the Wednesday morning “Sugar Reduction in Food Products” symposium addressed that question and more in a session that drew a large crowd of attendees despite it’s 8:30 a.m. start time—an apparently clear indication of the importance of the topic to product developers.
More than four out of 10 participants (42%) in a consumer survey conducted by FONA International said they would like to reduce their sugar intake, reported lead-off session presenter Pamela Oscarson, consumer insights manager at FONA.
In the same survey, 56% said they already are consuming less sugar than last year, 33% reported consuming the same amount, and an apparently unconcerned 11% said they were consuming more, Oscarson shared.
Weight loss was the No. 1 reason survey respondents gave for reducing their sugar intake. The No. 2 reason was because of a health condition. No. 3 was in order to have increased energy, and No. 4 was for overall health reasons.
The FONA survey also asked consumers about the top actions they’re taking to reduce sugar intake, and 73% said drinking water instead of caloric beverages, 53% said eliminating certain foods and beverages, and 35% said they were no longer adding table sugar to foods and beverages. Candy, carbonated soft drinks, baked goods, and sweet snacks are the main food products survey respondents said they’re consuming less of.
Although many of the survey respondents were concerned about sugar intake, FONA’s research found that price and taste were even more important to consumers than the amount of sugar a product contained.
Oscarson summarized the challenges that product developers face: “How do you find that balance of making a product that tastes good and also reducing those grams of sugar?”
Symposium panelist MaryAnne Drake, a professor at North Carolina State University, reported on her research exploring how parents, young adults, and kids responded to sugar reduction in chocolate milk with the goal of reaching 10 grams of sugar per serving—down from a starting point of 17 grams. She found that both kids and young adults found a sugar reduction of 40%—down to a level of about 9 grams—was very palatable. Parental study participants tended to have concerns about a variety of different factors, such as fat content, whether the product was all natural, and what type of sweetener was used.
Overall, Drake summarized, “What we found was that you can successfully apply non-nutritive sweeteners in milks, but the focus should be on reduction, not removal.”
One key point that all the presenters emphasized was the fact that sugar plays multiple roles in product formulation—roles that extend far beyond sweetness delivery. “Sugar reduction is more complicated than it looks,” said Drake.
“When you take sugar out, you have to be mindful that it’s not just the sweetness you are affecting,” said Jigar Rathod, senior scientist with Ingredion’s TIC Gums unit. It also affects taste profile, flavor profile, flavor release, and mouthfeel/texture, said Rathod, who shared information about TIC’s new texture sweetener system for use in reduced-sugar beverages.
“It’s not just about taking one ingredient out,” echoed presenter Jagriti Sharma, director of beverage technology for Talking Rain Beverage Co. “There is no one magic bullet.”
“A reduced-sugar toolkit is an ecosystem,” she continued noting that product developers need to consider the specific product application when making sweetener system decisions as well as a variety of other factors ranging from consumer expectations to how a product will be marketed.