Shifting away from sugar: What’s the outlook in 2020?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Shifting away from sugar:  What's the outlook in 2020?
Shifting away from sugar: What's the outlook in 2020?

Related tags sugar reduction reformulation

As consumers increasingly opt for nutritious snacking choices with reduced or no sugar, we talk to Julian Mellentin, Food and Beverage Consultant at New Nutrition Business, about the sugar-based trends on everyone’s lips.

In 2020, we can anticipate health-conscious consumers seeking nutritional snacking options that prioritise health, a nutritious diet and convenience.

In Europe, two-thirds of people state they are trying to lower their sugar intake, New Nutrition Business found in its consumer research. “Sugar now occupies the place of the dietary demon that fat occupied 20 years ago,” ​emphasised Julian Mellentin, Food and Beverage Consultant, at New Nutrition Business.

Internationally, Europe has the highest number of food and drink launches with low or no added sugar labelling. Juice drinks, snacks, sugar and gum confectionery lead the way in terms of categories containing low or no added sugar claims.

Consumers can expect to see novel and innovative creations that have reduced sugars or artificial sweeteners. Increasingly, syrups from sweet fruit and vegetable sources, such as sweet potato, pomegranate or dates, will be available and used to sweeten products.

Across the snack bars, biscuits and carbonated drinks categories, less sweet flavour profiles are also popular. Unilever, for example, has introduced savoury marmite biscuits. However, throughout the industry, brands are eager to prove that natural sweeteners are safe. As a result, making natural and sugar-free options available while being transparent is vital.

Good versus bad nutrients

Brands are striving to lower the level of ‘bad’ nutrients such as sugar from their product ranges and consumer diets, while simultaneously encouraging the intake of ‘good’ nutrients such as fibre and protein.

According to the Health and Nutrition Survey, Euromonitor International, 2019, the consumer response, “I am trying to limit my intake of refined sugar”, ​was the third most popular consumer action taking place among global consumers looking to develop healthy eating habits and dietary preferences.

“In the realm of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ carbs, sugar has become the worst carb, demonised even more than ‘beige’ carbs such as bread and pasta,”​ emphasised Mellentin.

Complex consumer behaviour

Consumer awareness and knowledge are on the up, as is the reluctance to purchase products if misleading information is associated with the food and drink brands that manufacture them.

In Germany, for example, 48% of consumers state that low sugar content is the most important factor when searching and shopping for healthy food. While in the UK, over half (51%) of consumers agree that a product containing high levels of naturally occurring sugar is misleading if it is labelled as ‘no sugar’.

However, “consumers' behaviour around sugar reduction is complex”, ​Mellentin explains. In Sweden, for example, consumers tell researchers they do not want artificial sweeteners – yet one of the biggest successes of the past few years in Sweden has been Njie ProPud – sweetened with sucralose and acesulfame K.

In the UK, consumers have “dramatically” ​cut their consumption of fruit yoghurts because of sugar content, with sales dropping 10% per annum, Mellentin indicates. However, sales of luxury ice cream, which can be as much as 40% sugar, have grown by 10%.

Most consumers say they don’t want artificial sweeteners – yet in the past four years, some products with aspartame have become huge successes,” ​added Mellentin.

Public health emphasis

Public health communicators are “piling on the pressure for companies by focusing strongly on sugar”,​ Mellentin stated. As a result, governments see introducing sugar taxes and more demanding labelling requirements as “an easy way to ‘do the right thing’ (and win media headlines)”​. However, he warns that there is currently insufficient evidence to show that sugar taxes or labels make much lasting difference to people’s sugar consumption.

Following the implementation of the sugar tax on soft drinks in 2018 in the UK and Ireland, health departments have pressed ahead with encouraging sugar lessening efforts to encourage food and beverage producers to modify their creations. Public Health England also revealed its plans to reduce 20% of sugar from the food industry by 2020​ from the baseline set in 2015. Yet, in 2019, the Sugar Reduction: Report on progress between 2015 and 2018​ indicates that “the picture at brand and product level for retailers and manufacturers is also mixed”.

Changing sugar perceptions

Learning new information from friends, families, campaigns and individual research is considered the “strongest driver of change”​, Mellentin said. As companies continue to invest and commit to developing innovative reduced or no sugar-based products, sugar categories are witnessing shifts and redefinitions.

For example, Nestlé’s development of a patented, all-natural, low-sugar version of its confectionery brand Wowsomes could, if successful, make confectionery a more permissible indulgence, Mellentin noted.

“There was a time, not long ago, when any product offering reduced sugar had a point of difference and this message could – almost by itself – attract health-aware consumers,” ​Mellentin explained. “Those days are going away fast.”

Companies crack the sugar reduction code

“Where once companies were wrestling with whether and how to reduce sugar, they appear to have largely cracked the problem,” ​added Mellentin.

In 2020, sugar reduction is an everyday part of product development in every category. What this means is that reduced or no sugar is no longer a selling point. Reduced-sugar brands are therefore providing and highlighting other benefits such as protein or digestive wellness.

Highlighting how the “low-sugar brands that are really successful use this approach”,​ we can see that Halo Top ice cream promotes its protein promise, Swedish brand Njie ProPud offers its high-protein, lactose-free dairy dessert, and Troo emphasises its gluten-free, low-sugar, vegan cereal.

Looking again at Njie ProPud, for its target market of young, fitness-oriented consumers, the benefits of protein, lactose- free, single-serve, lower calories and indulgent flavours (such as chocolate) “outweigh any negative thoughts about artificial sweeteners”,​ Mellentin noted.

It’s okay to indulge

If a sugar food or beverage product delivers consumer benefits that are more important than perceived ‘must haves’ such as ‘no artificial sweeteners’, then a consumer is likely to overlook these and embrace the ‘permission to indulge’ trend that brands are adopting.

Representing “a big shift in strategy”,​ the permission to indulge strategy indicates that “consumers are more open to multiple benefits from one product”, ​Mellentin enthused.

A clear aim for brands launching new products or modifying existing ranges is now to explore and embrace the ‘guilt-free’ and the ‘permissible’ indulgence trends by reducing the sugar content in their food and beverage innovations. 

In fact, “permission to indulge wins every time”​, as consumers want to believe that if it is natural it’s okay. As a result, sweeteners such as honey, dates and fructose are becoming the preferred source of sweetness for many health-conscious consumers.

Taste comes top

As FoodNavigator reported, new product launches do come with the opportunity to produce innovative flavours​ that move away from sugar to create bitter, spicier, hotter, sharper and more pungent flavours.

Around the globe, specific ingredients are heavily contributing towards the successful move from sugar-based product tastes to exotic and interesting palette performers. Ingredients such as turmeric, cayenne and cardamom are proving popular in snacking, dairy and beverage categories, consultancy firm MMR Research, revealed.

Ultimately, “sugar reduction wins if taste wins too”​, Mellentin noted, so those brands that reduce sugar content but that do not compromise on taste, are seeing big jumps in sales.

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