Cutting sugar could increase consumer preference

10 Jul 2019

Finding food ‘too sweet’ is the top taste complaint among consumers, according to a new study that looked at nearly 400,000 online food product reviews over the past decade, raising the possibility that many manufacturers could make deeper sugar reductions – and actually boost consumer enjoyment.

Sugar reduction is often billed as a difficult task for consumers as well as industry, but a study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that nearly one per cent of food product reviews mentioned the phrase “too sweet”, regardless of the type of food product, and over-sweetness was highlighted 25 times more often than under-sweetness. In addition, excessive sweetness was a much more common complaint than excessive saltiness – a finding that surprised the researchers, from Monell Chemical Senses Center, considering public health concerns about salt consumption.

Cutting sugar could increase consumer preference
Many consumers prefer less sweetness

The research is biggest study of its kind, conducted by looking at real-world reviews, rather than in the artificial setting of the laboratory, so the findings could help manufacturers cut sugar with greater confidence. The study also could add credence to the so-called ‘stealthy’ approach to sugar reduction, whereby manufacturers gradually reduce the amount of sugar in their products over time, so consumers get used to reduced sweetness, often without even knowing that the recipe has changed.

Manufacturers are under enormous pressure to cut the sugar in their products, especially those that supply countries with specific sugar reduction targets, like the UK and Singapore, or those with sugar taxes, like Australia, South Africa and Mexico. When it comes to sugar reduction, there is a wide range of options available, but the focus is often on ensuring the same sweet, sugar-like taste. However, if a little less sweetness is acceptable – and even preferable – to consumers, the options for sugar reduction could shift. Depending on the product, this could mean using fewer alternative sweeteners, for example, and focusing more on maintaining the functional properties of sugar, such as texture, mouthfeel, bulk, browning and caramelisation.

If manufacturers are not cutting sugar out completely, it is replacing the bulk and texture of sugar that often presents the biggest challenge. One potential solution is to use fibre ingredients, and companies like Tate & Lyle, Roquette and Fibersol each supply a range of fibre ingredients specifically intended to tackle this problem in reduced sugar products. The ingredients have the added advantage of helping answer consumer demand for foods that are higher in fibre.

Hydrocolloid and starch suppliers, including Ingredion and CP Kelco, have also developed ingredients for reduced sugar products to add back in texture and bulk without adding sweetness. Others, like DouxMatok and Nestlé, have developed restructured sugar ingredients that have the same bulk as ordinary sugar with less of the sweetener by mass, but these generally cannot be used in liquid products. However, in applications like beverages, the main part of removed sugars often can be replaced with water alone – especially if manufacturers are not concerned about losing a little sweetness.

Meanwhile, some have suggested that manufacturers could lose sales if they fail to cut sugar in response to consumer demand for lower sugar products. A recent white paper from Kerry Group found that consumer concerns about too much sugar already had led many to buy fewer packaged foods and drinks.