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Kerry research reveals long-term health is “front and center for sugar reduction”

01 May 2023 — In its latest analysis of sugar reduction and shopper behavior, Kerry finds that long-term health and taste are deemed as crucial factors when looking at reduced sugar alternatives and consumers are not necessarily triggered to reduce sugar for weight loss. Meanwhile, emotional states and eating occasions throughout the day are also intrinsically linked to sugar reduction and indulgent moments that consumers crave.

Speaking with FoodIngredientsFirst, Soumya Nair, Kerry’s global director for consumer research and insights, says that although there is upward pressure to reduce sugar from a legislation standpoint, there is a downstream push for industry from consumers who want to reduce the amount of sugar that they have in products. 

“Sugar reduction is nothing new, and we knew that going into the research. It’s not the primary reason why we conducted the research. We wanted to understand if people were reducing sugar, what is motivating them to do that?”

Health is a factor that we have to consider in the context of sugar reduction, Nair explains. 

Surprisingly, Kerry found that weight loss was not a number one or even number two driver for sugar reduction. “Prioritization toward functional health, wanting more immune health and focus on digestive health products, those were increasing,” Nair flags. 

Consumers often eat sweet indulgences when they are happy, sad or celebrating, the time of year also impacts sugar consumption.“In a relatively post-pandemic world, where things are going back to a sense of normality, a lot of health aspects have changed,” she underscores. “So we thought, it’s time to see if consumer preferences for sugar have stayed the same. We wanted to know what the new motivations are, is it sustainability, and so on.”

The first ranked reason was “it’s better for my long-term health,” so many consumers are very future-focused and proactive in their approach. 

Expecting the next driver to be around weight loss, Kerry found that consumers are shifting away from sugar to avoid future medical problems. “They want to make sure that their long-term health is being taken care of, and doing this is a way that says ‘prevention is better than cure,’” Nair explains. “Weight loss is not a primary trigger anymore.”

“There is a definite need for enhanced immune health, digestive health and mental wellness. All of these things are long-term focused.”

Motivational eating behaviors 
Although health is a crucial driver for reducing sugar, Nair explains that it is also “innately connected to culture, nostalgia and comfort.”

From an emotional aspect, consumers eat sweet indulgences when they are happy, sad or celebrating. “There are so many emotional connections to sugar and sweet food and drinks, it cannot be ignored, but proactive nutrition is much higher, so consumer perceptions and preferences are changing,” Nair states. 

Another key finding that Kerry is outlining is that consumer motivations might not be much about vanity, but it is about their health. 

“There are three behaviors within the section,” Nair continues. “The first is all about the person actively reducing sugar, so going to zero sugar, or no sugar aspect. This is the smallest set of the population, who might be motivated because there are health issues. We also realized that some consumers are either not medically motivated to move to zero sugar.”

“So there is that set of consumers who show a particular behavior regarding sweetness and sugar. Then following this, there are what we call ‘the independents,’ the consumers who want their sugar without compromise and think that taste is king,” she explains. 

“This behavior is: ‘If I want to reduce sugar, I will do it on my own terms.’” 

Then finally, there is a group of consumers who believe that sweetness is a dominant aspect of food. Still, they are focused on reducing sugar across the day and managing it themselves. “Of each group, there are knowledge gaps and we need to arm them with the right pieces of information,” Nair adds. 

Notably, consumers can be all three, and depending on the time of the year, sugar reduction might ebb and flow in line with celebrations or festivities. 

To delve deeper into sugar behaviors, Kerry asked its respondents two questions. 

The first being: “What is the amount of sugar you think you should be consuming?” And the second is “How much do you think you are consuming?”

Kerry found that consumers want to consume less sugar and they also believe they are having more sugar than they should be. “This might have been brewing throughout the pandemic and now their behaviors are more apparent and consumers want to do more about sugar reduction,” notes Nair. 

Kerry then started looking into these behaviors more, specifically the preference for sugars and sweeteners, as people are seeking solutions that help them cut down on the amount of sugar they consume.

Age matters
When looking more closely at demographics, Kerry found that younger consumers were more open to sweetness than older consumers. Nair notes that this was a surprise because of the marketplace’s abundance of sparkling waters and zero-sugar options. 

“However, there is an opinion that younger consumers tend to need bolder amounts of sugar, because their sensory perception of sweetness is different from older consumers. As you get older, your sensory perception changes with noticing sweetness. Then it made sense that younger consumers seemed much more open to sugar,” she asserts. Kerry found that consumers are shifting away from sugar to avoid future medical issues.

“There was also an aspect of: ‘I know what sugar is, I can recognize it and I can control it,’ from the younger consumers.”

It was fascinating for Nair to see how younger consumers are open to sugar, but also knowing that this desire to rescue sugar was common across all age ranges. 

‘The perception of sweetness differs across age groups,” she comments. 

Indulgence and sweetness 
Indulgence was key in sweetness and sugar reduction. 

“We never speak about indulgence in this sense of sugar decision-making. It’s typically about cutting down, sugar taxes and legislation, but indulgence is an important conversation,” affirms Nair. 

She states that indulgence and sugar is a more delicate conversation, and it can be very objective when sugar reduction comes into play. 

“We are seeing more occasions during the day where ‘mindless indulgence’ and ‘mindless snacking’ comes into play,” Nair explains, adding that there is a low desire for sugar reduction when consumers feel the need to indulge. 

Of course, there will always be occasions where sugar-reduced options are welcome, but when thinking about indulgence and taste, she adds that convenience must also be considered. 

“Indulgence calls the shots as far as category specifics are concerned. At that time, consumers have already made a decision about sugar reduction at the time of purchase,” she enthuses. 

Full flavor experience needed 
Consumers today are open to sugar-reduced products but want more options that offer the same flavor experience as sugar products. 

“Conscious consumerism is an evident trend and impacts why consumers repeat a purchase,” Nair notes. “They also want choices that make finding a solution easier. With so many priorities, consumers are hard pressed for time, so having a wide range of sugar-reduced products that help them meet their goals and offer the same taste experiences is important to them.”

“Currently, taste is a barrier, but it also creates an opportunity to say there is a gap, there is desire and intention, which is sometimes the biggest barrier to changing behaviors.”

Kerry found that, generally, consumers are open to reduction as long as the flavor profile is the same. “It’s a very conscious market right now, and brand loyalty is also a loose concept, especially among younger consumers who are more adventurous and willing to try new things,” Nair concludes. 

By Elizabeth Green

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