Stop bragging – reduce sugar by stealth!

There has never been such a great variety of different sugar-free and sugar-reduced products as now. Nevertheless, it can be difficult for these products to have a broad impact. Jack Winkler, professor emeritus in nutrition policy, says that food producers must stop boasting about sugar reduction and instead doing it by stealth.

8 July 2020 •

The sup­ply of sug­ar-reduced prod­ucts has prob­a­bly not been greater than today. There is demand but also doubt among many con­sumers. How should food man­u­fac­tur­ers mak­ing sug­ar-reduced foods reach the mass­es? In a pod­cast episode by Food Navigator, we get to lis­ten to Jack Winkler, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in nutri­tion pol­i­cy at London Metropolitan University. Winkler makes a some­what con­tro­ver­sial pro­pos­al that runs counter to our instincts. He says we should stop boast­ing about our sug­ar reduc­tion. But how should we mar­ket sug­ar-reduced prod­ucts if we don’t tell con­sumers that they are – sugar-reduced?

Somewhat dull

Let’s talk about the ele­phant in the room: It is dif­fi­cult to sell sug­ar-reduced products.

Sure, many con­sumers say they want to eat health­i­er, but when it comes down to it, they often opt out of the sug­ar-reduced prod­ucts. The rea­sons are many.

Consumers know from expe­ri­ence that prod­ucts with less added sug­ar don’t always taste very good. They are also scep­ti­cal of E-num­bers and addi­tives that they are nei­ther famil­iar with nor can spell.

Sugar reduc­tion can also be expe­ri­enced as the oppo­site of indul­gence; There is some­thing dull and sapi­ent with sug­ar reduction.

Of course, there is a mar­ket for sug­ar-reduced prod­ucts for peo­ple with dia­betes or oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties and also for some healthy believ­ers. But for the broad seg­ments, sug­ar reduc­tion does not seem to attract – despite many con­sumers say­ing the opposite.

So what should you do as a food producer?

Not just for charity

An oppor­tu­ni­ty, of course, is to con­tin­ue as usu­al. Carry on with sug­ar or glu­cose syrup, and let oth­ers take care of any health prob­lems that may arise. But of course, your com­pa­ny is not like that. That fact that you read this chron­i­cle is enough proof.

You under­stand that pro­duc­ers must take social respon­si­bil­i­ty and reduce added sug­ar in foods. You real­ize that its not only a kind deed but also best for your busi­ness in the long run. You just don’t know how to do it.

Perhaps Jack Winkler, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of nutri­tion pol­i­cy at London Metropolitan University, has the answer: Stop brag­ging – reduce by stealth!

Stop bragging

Jack Winkler believes that food man­u­fac­tur­ers must stop brag­ging about new sug­ar-free prod­ucts. What instinc­tive­ly feels right – to noti­fy con­sumers about new health­i­er alter­na­tives – is doomed to fail if one tru­ly wants con­sumers to con­sume health­i­er foods.

Why is that?

Actually, it’s pret­ty sim­ple. Consumers want to make sure they get exact­ly the taste, tex­ture and mouth­feel they expect when they buy their favourite choco­late or soft drinks they drank since they were chil­dren. It is deeply root­ed. In addi­tion, his­to­ry is full of more or less unsuc­cess­ful sug­ar reduc­tion – at least when it comes to taste and mouthfeel.

On the way to the store, the con­sumer might think that today – today I will pick the healthy alter­na­tive. ‘I can at least try it out, why not!’ But stand­ing at the shelf, the con­sumer will in most cas­es end up with the sug­ary prod­ucts after all.

A healthier Europe

Not all con­sumers behave like that, one might object. No, cer­tain­ly not. But at the same time, we are see­ing that obe­si­ty and ill­ness increase as a result of exces­sive sug­ar con­sump­tion. If every­one chose sug­ar-reduced prod­ucts, we would prob­a­bly see brighter dis­ease sta­tis­tics in Europe and else­where in the world.

Sugar tax

One way of deal­ing with health prob­lems linked to exces­sive sug­ar con­sump­tion may be to intro­duce a spe­cial sug­ar tax. The idea is that many con­sumers are unwill­ing to pay 3 euro for a can of soda.

But no one wants to pay more tax, and cer­tain­ly not the food pro­duc­ers, who either have to take from their prof­its or raise the price of their prod­ucts. Therefore, it should be in the inter­ests of the food pro­duc­ers to reduce added sug­ar in order to avoid a sug­ar tax in coun­tries where it has not yet been intro­duced but is like­ly to be.

And in those coun­tries that already have a sug­ar tax, it is of course in the inter­est of com­pa­nies to reduce added sug­ar to reduce the tax.

Reduce by stealth

Whether we want to avoid the intro­duc­tion of a sug­ar tax or to pay the already intro­duced sug­ar tax, we should reduce the amount of added sug­ar in our foods. But is it pos­si­ble with­out much has­sle? According to Professor Jack Winkler, it is eas­i­er to get con­sumers to accept reduced sug­ar if we don’t men­tion sug­ar reduc­tion in the first place.


By exam­ple, Winkler high­lights Heinz, which grad­u­al­ly has reduced salt with­out com­mu­ni­cat­ing this to con­sumers. Since 1985, Heinz has reduced the salt in its clas­sic toma­to ketchup by 40 per cent.

The key to Heinz’s suc­cess is the grad­ual reduc­tion in salt over time. If you do so, con­sumers will not notice any dif­fer­ence. If you reduce dras­ti­cal­ly and rarely there is a risk that con­sumers will dis­cov­er the reduction.

The test panel

Heinz recruit­ed a test pan­el and had them try­ing out dif­fer­ent sam­ples of Heinz ketchup. Each sam­ple had a lit­tle less salt than the pre­vi­ous one. It was not­ed how much salt could be removed before the test pan­el noticed any dif­fer­ence. They then reduced the salt by a lit­tle less than this lim­it val­ue in the prod­ucts they sold.

When con­sumers, after e few years, had become accus­tomed to the less salty ketchup, the same pro­ce­dure was repeat­ed with the help of a test panel.

This pro­ce­dure has then been repeat­ed periodically.

Heinz has also man­aged to reduce sug­ar in its prod­ucts. In their clas­sic toma­to soup, they have low­ered their sug­ar lev­el by 34 per cent, since 1985.

Add something

But you can go a step fur­ther. Laura Swain, trend ana­lyst at British inno­va­tion firm Stylus, is also heard in the same pod­cast episode of Food Navigator. Swain talks about the impor­tance of men­tion­ing what you add in food.

Talking about what you add can be per­ceived as more pos­i­tive instead of focus­ing on what you remove. The fact that some­thing is reduced does not cre­ate any desire and incen­tive on the part of the con­sumer. Of course, this assumes that what we add is some­thing the con­sumer wants and is famil­iar with.

Boasting about glu­cose syrup, fruc­tose, or some oth­er mon­ster sug­ars is cer­tain­ly not the solution.

In fact, it doesn’t real­ly have to be sug­ar-relat­ed. Swain talks about fibre and pro­tein as exam­ples of ingre­di­ents that con­sumers are famil­iar with and appreciate.

But not only do con­sumers think fibres is some­thing great. Fibres com­bine util­i­ty with plea­sure: they offer bulk and mouth­feel to your sug­ar reduc­tion and some also bring flavour and sweetness.

The best way

By reduc­ing sug­ar step by step and not boast­ing about it, you can make a con­tri­bu­tion to health and avoid sug­ar tax. If you use sweet­ened fibres, you can instead boast about hav­ing a fibre-enriched prod­uct. Contact us and we will tell you more.


Take a day out in the ham­mock, or gath­er col­leagues at work and lis­ten to Jack Winkler and Laura Swain as they devel­op their thoughts in the pod­cast called Sugar refor­mu­la­tion part 1: Why reduc­ing by stealth is key by Food Navigator. It is well spent time.

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