Columns • 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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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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