Walk into any supermarket and you are sure to come across several rows of drinks all boasting different health claims. Low sugar, no sugar, reduced calories, organic and many more are among the statements that beverage companies make to sell their products to the growing wave of health-conscious consumers. However, these drinks are becoming increasingly popular in bars, restaurants and cafes, catering to customers who are looking for a holistic dining experience that encompasses health and taste in equal measure.
But as important as the constantly evolving research into sugar and its alternatives remains, recent studies have shown that, for proprietors, the key to using natural sweeteners effectively begins with the consumer.
The trouble with sugar (and some sweeteners)
Several studies have linked high sugar consumption with health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and obesity. Artificial sweeteners, too, have come under fire for their association with imbalance of gut-healthy microbes, as well as leading to glucose intolerance. Recent discussion around the truth behind health food claims has cast scrutiny on the benefits of low sugar beverages. However, it is not necessarily the products themselves that are misleading, but the use of them. Because ingredients such as agave syrup are sweeter than sugar, they can be added to recipes in far lower quantities – in fact, for any health benefit to occur, they must be because, otherwise consumers will simply consume a similar calorie intake. As dietician Lucy Jones emphasises, a “like-for-like” approach is not the answer.
Consumer perceptions of sugar alternatives
Popular Channel 4 documentary series, Food Unwrapped, recently broadcasted a special edition called “The Truth About Sugar”. During the show, they asked survey respondents for their attitudes towards food and drink products containing sugar. Respondents were asked to state which type of sugar they deemed the healthiest out of normal sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup and coconut sugar. One respondent said: “coconut sugar… because everything is coconut these days, coconut water…” This clearly illustrates the way in which existing consumer and market trends can influence individuals’ ideas of what is healthy through mere popularity. However, the survey respondents proved that the consumer’s awareness of the sugar debate should not be underestimated. As one individual criticised: “I don’t think the sugar content is visual enough, it’s all on the small print on the back”.
According to Mintel's study, “Sugar and sweeteners: the consumer and industry’s response”, women and consumers over 45 years old are the most likely audiences to see low sugar and sugar-free options as a healthy choice. Interestingly, around 40 per cent of respondents in their study said that they thought low sugar or sugar-free choices were healthy, whereas only 21 per cent thought the same of choices labelled ‘light’ or ‘diet’. However, 50 per cent of consumers said that they would like to see more products using natural sweeteners to replace sugar, despite the fact that 58 per cent of them were wary of the ingredients in diet foods. When asked about the actions they took to manage their weight, 48 per cent said they would cut back on sugary foods and drinks, and 30 per cent said they would specifically cut down on alcohol.
How healthy sugar alternatives are shaping the drinks industry
The study also gained insight into industry trends. It demonstrated that soft drinks companies are at the forefront of the sugar reduction movement, with the most common type of product to introduce low sugar or sugar-free claims being soft drinks. UK retail value growth from 2010-14 was 14 per cent higher for diet or low calorie CSDs than regular ones, now accounting for 45 per cent of the market value. Low sugar drinks, on the other hand, declined in retail value growth in 2010-14 by 21 per cent.
Nonetheless, there remains huge scope for companies looking to sell healthy beverage alternatives in their establishment. 41 per cent of consumers said they were interested in buying low calorie CSDs made with natural sweeteners, increasingly celebrating the holistic approach to nutrition and social drinking. Mintel conclude that “consumer interest is high, but consumers may be deterred by a negative taste perception, confused by on-pack messages.”
A more recent study by Mintel, “Consumer Attitudes toward Sugar and Sweeteners” of 2015 suggests that: “Naturalness’ appears to have become almost synonymous with healthiness and elicits trust from consumers, while anything artificial people tend to be wary of. This creates opportunities for manufacturers to move away from refined sugar and towards those with strong natural connotations in their recipe formulations.” They also suggest that “Openly communicating about ingredients will win the trust of shoppers” is an integral tactic in getting consumers to engage with healthier options. In achieving this, key approaches are clear labelling of ingredients, staff knowledge about products and customisability.
The cost of health
Another key element to take into account when marketing low sugar alternatives to customers is cost. According to a Daily Mail article, some sugar alternatives such as coconut blossom nectar can cost up to £8 for a 350g jar, compared with 59p for a 1kg bag of sugar. This makes the pricier alternatives unattainable for many consumers in the home situation. Thus, those in the mid to high-range income levels may choose to treat themselves to wholesome beverages containing more expensive alternatives whilst having drinks out. However, the expense of ingredients such as coconut blossom nectar may mean that drink products containing more affordable alternatives such as agave are wiser for bars and restaurants to sell, as they will appeal to a wide consumer base.
After all, as Food Dive notes, “sweetener manufacturer decisions come down to more than just consumer sentiment, with economic data, particularly return on investment and ingredient and operational costs, to take into account.” Nonetheless, the key to using natural sweeteners effectively lies with an understanding of the consumers. Ketchum Blog argues that consumers’ awareness of the dangers of sugar should be an opportunity rather than a barrier. They insist that, "Consumers have the control and they are just beginning to exercise their power. Time will only intensify their scrutiny.”
Taste remains key
Still, taste remains the central motivator in consumers’ drinks choices. Cargill’s 2011 research into how beverage ingredients affect consumers’ perceptions of taste, sweetness and mouthfeel suggested that there is a definite connection between key mouthfeel sensations and consumers’ appreciation of the beverage in question. Research fellow Brian Guthrie claimed that until the study’s findings had been published, the drinks industry had tended to focus on the addition of flavours to minimise taste differences between low calorie and regular products, but had neglected attention to the mouthfeel of these drinks.
According to the research, “Full calorie lemon-lime drinks always scored higher in "tongue heaviness" mouthfeel attributes. Diet scored higher for "sweet," "sour," "bitter" and "metallic" aftertaste attributes” at this point. However, since these findings, significant progress has been made in improving the texture and viscosity of low-sugar drinks, making many indistinguishable from their less healthy alternatives.