‘Consumers are not satisfied with its taste’: FMCG Gurus research flags shortcomings of stevia

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images - HandmadePictures
© Getty Images - HandmadePictures
Consumers are increasingly working to cut their sugar intake. But, according to a recent poll from consumer research and insight provider FMCG Gurus, shoppers are also unconvinced by one of the most common natural alternatives: stevia.

Dietary advice suggests added sugar shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy you get from food and drink each day. That equates to around 30g a day for adults. On average, we are eating much more than this.

Data from the UK’s National Health Service suggests UK consumers eat around 100g of added sugar per day. That’s an average of 140 teaspoons of sugar per person, per week.

Cut sugar to shed the pounds

With the growing prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, the message to cut sugar is hitting home.

Reducing sugar intake is clearly linked with weight and energy management in our collective consciousness.

“Sugar is often seen as the main dietary evil by consumers,”​ Mike Hughes, head of research and insight at FMCG Gurus, confirmed.

FMCG Gurus' research of 25,000 consumers across twenty-five countries in Q1 2019 found 39% of consumers say that they are on a diet in order to lose weight.

When asked what strategies they are adopting, the third most common answer given was sugar reduction, at 48%, after making greater attempts to exercise more and eat more fresh food.

The negative health connotations of sugar consumption were also reflected in the research, which found 40% of consumers stated they believe zero sugar claims automatically make a product healthy.

Indeed, 46% are making ‘conscious attempts’ to avoid food and drink products that are high in sugar.

FMCG Gurus sugar research, Q1 2019
©FMCG Gurus sugar research, Q1 2019

Attitudes not translating to action

Consumers clearly favour natural options for sugar reduction, Mintel analyst Alice Baker noted. This preference is supported by consumer desire for ‘natural’ ingredients and clean label foods and has resulted in ‘widespread’ mistrust of artificial sweeteners.

“While the widespread suspicions of artificial sweeteners present a significant challenge, consumers’ openness to alternative sugar substitutes and to less sweet-tasting products gives scope for companies to explore a wide range of options to achieve the desired sugar reductions,”​ Baker noted.

The demand for natural sweetener options was also reflected in the FMCG Gurus study. The survey revealed 62% of consumers believe ‘natural sweeteners are healthier than sugar’.

However, there is a disconnect between consumers’ stated desire to cut sugar, their belief that artificial sweeteners are ‘healthier’ and their actions. Only 28% of consumers reported that they are ‘making active attempts’ to seek out products containing natural sweeteners.

“This shows that even if consumers express negative sentiment towards sugar, they are not necessarily making fundamental changes to their lifestyles,​” Hughes observed.

Why aren’t more consumers making the switch?

Stevia has emerged as one of the leading natural high intensity sweeteners. According to Mintel, stevia featured in 28% of new products containing high intensity sweeteners in 2017 and stevia product launches were up 10% globally.

At an ingredient level, the stevia market is predicted to grow at rates of 20-40% per year in the next three years, according to the International Stevia Council.​

Despite this bullish outlook for the natural sweetener, Hughes suggested FMCG Gurus research highlights the limitations of stevia’s consumer appeal. “Stevia is an ingredient that has become more mainstream over the last five years. However, research shows that fewer than two in ten consumers across the globe are making attempts to seek out products that contain the ingredient,”​ he stressed.

©GettyImages-Makidotvn chocolate taste
Only a minority of consumers said chocolate made with stevia tasted better ©GettyImages-Makidotvn

FMCG Gurus research shows that seven in ten consumers (72%) have tried a product that contains stevia. Whilst 44% of consumers say that they believe stevia is a healthy ingredient, they are ‘less impressed’ with taste perceptions.

Hughes elaborated: “In several product categories analysed, less than two in ten consumers said products containing stevia tasted better than sugar. For instance, only 22% of consumers said carbonated soft drinks that contain the ingredient taste better, whilst only 24% said this for chocolate.

“Taste is something that acts as a major barrier when it comes to seeking out better-for-you options, and the acidic taste that is associated with stevia is shown to concern many.”

Consumers prioritise taste

This is a big issue for product formulators who are developing low sugar alternatives because time and again consumers have been shown to prioritise taste over nutrition, Hughes continued.

“It must be remembered that irrespective of any concerns that they have over their health, consumers will often prioritise taste over nutrition when seeking out food and drink.

“Moreover, attitude-behaviour gaps mean that even if consumers are concerned about sugar, they are not making changes to their eating and drinking habits. This means that they are unlikely to be researching about alternative sweeteners. As such, the reality is that unless brands address taste perceptions, stevia will be something that continues to offer little appeal to consumers.”

However, stevia supplier PureCircle insisted taste is no longer a problem for product developers working with stevia. According to the company, next generation stevia-based sweeteners can be used in food and beverage products without a detrimental impact on taste. 

PureCircle CEO Maga Malsagov explained that the company has 'overcome the past challenges facing stevia leaf sweeteners' - taste, supply and cost. 

"The company’s next generation non-GMO stevia sweeteners like Reb M have a clean, sugar-like taste and work well across multiple consumer product categories. And PureCircle has ramped up its ability to supply the next generation sweeteners, like Reb M, in the large quantities that food and beverage companies require – and cost effectively to them,"​ he stressed.

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