Columns • There are constant demands on the food and beverage industry to reduce sugar in what we eat. So we listen, and we stop adding sugar, or at lease we reduce it. But are we not tricking ourselves - and the consumers - when we add less sugar and instead replace the sweetness with aspartame and acesulfame K, or replace it entirely with maltitol, or fruit juice?
It’s a warm summer’s day and a friend and I want to buy something cold to drink. My friend chooses a bottle of water and tells me it’s his favourite. No surprise, it barely tastes of water. It’s sweet and has a fruits of the forest kind of taste. Even water is sweetened! We live in a society overloaded with sugar.
There’s no escape
Not even for the youngest among us.
My sister and I are shopping. She needs to buy porridge for her baby. The usual kind is sold out, but on the shelf in the supermarket is ”pear flavoured porridge”. On the packaging we see a picture of nice green fruit next to a porridge bowl. For many new parents with fussy kids, pear porridge will of course seem like an easy way to make their kids eat. And if they eat more fruit, it’s great, right? But when we read the table of contents another picture emerges: oats dipped in fruit juice. Another way to sweeten without actually adding sugar.
Not even babies are spared in our sugar loaded society.
Good intentions turned bad
In the food and beverage industry we do what the lawmakers, advisors and pressure groups ask us to do: we reduce the amount of added sugar. And the consumers are content when they read ”30% less sugar” or ”no added sugar”.
But how much do we really gain then the sugar is replaced by something that has almost the same affect on the blood sugar level, or with almost as many calories as sugar? Or when sugar is reduced at the cost of artificial sweeteners?
Sugar reduction is not something that trendy food and beverage producers can choose to go along with or not. They are not out to make a product with the right label just for show. Whoever believes that is clearly misled. We need to understand that it is a genuine interest in health that drives the consumer demand in this matter.
The same thing applies when governments, authorities, consumer pressure groups demand less sugar. They don’t do it because they want to take away tasty foods, they do it to reduce the prevalence of diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.
The hidden danger
One day consumers will realise that ”no added sugar” doesn’t necessarily mean less calories and lower GI, and that it might very well mean artificial additives.
What happens then?
By replacing sugar with fruit juices or maltitol, or synthetic sweeteners, or the like, producers can claim that their products contain ”less sugar” or ”no added sugar”, without a lot of time-consuming product development and expensive ingredients. But doing so is putting the trust that the consumers have in them at risk.
In short: cheap solutions don’t come cheap.
The missed opportunity
A company that will instead develop recipes where not only sugar is reduced, but also all the bad things that sugar brings - calories, high GI, tooth decay - has a lot to gain. If you can do it with healthy and natural ingredients you can position your brand as more natural and healthier than your competitors’ brands. This creates a differentiation which can both attract buyers and motivate a premium price.
This could also lead to loyal customers. A parent who brings the pear porridge home and realises that it doesn’t contain what they expected at all, not fruit - as the picture led them to believe but instead fruit juice concentrate - will not buy the product again. While those who find a brand that actually does develop natural and healthy products will become loyal customers.
Of course, it’s up to each producer to position their brands as they find. But it’s reasonable to believe that all serious producers would want to earn the trust of consumers and gain their loyalty. Not risking it by taking short-cuts. They should in that case stop listening to what everybody tells them and instead ask themselves what they can do to attract loyal consumers and gain their trust.
The answer is not less sugar. The answer is less calories, lower GI and nothing artificial.
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