Lessons for food marketers as sugar consumption in UK tumbles

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 18th March 2015
Lessons for food marketers as sugar consumption in UK tumbles
Lessons for food marketers as sugar consumption in UK tumbles

As the health debate surrounding sugar continues, food marketers are reviewing their product formulation and marketing strategies.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of UK consumers have said they have taken at least one course of action to monitor or reduce their sugar intake in the last year, according to the latest findings from market research organisation Mintel.

Over the year to September 2014, more than a quarter (27 per cent) of UK consumers said they had checked food labels for sugar content more often than they did 12 months previously. Meanwhile, 26 per cent said they had limited the amount of sugar in their diet and 25 per cent that they have cooked from scratch to control sugar intake more often over the same period.

Consumer expectations of food and beverage companies

Mintel found that the majority of consumers (71 per cent) believe that the food and drink industry should be doing more to reduce the amount of sugar in their products.

Three quarters of consumers (75 per cent) said they think food and drink companies should make it easier to understand how much sugar is in their products. Some three fifths (58 per cent) of all UK consumers said they “feel cheated” when a company was not clear about the high sugar content of its products, while over four in 10 (44 per cent) people said they thought food or drink products should show more clearly if they contain sweeteners.

“The dangers related to consuming too much sugar became the major food issue of 2014,” Ms Clifford said. “Consumers are expecting the food industry to respond which shows that there are plenty of opportunities for companies to really make themselves stand out on this front,” she said.

“However, companies have also got to be wary of a potential consumer backlash against reformulations, if taste is seen to be sacrificed,” Ms Clifford said. “Gradual changes to products to improve their health credentials look to be needed, or to offer ‘light’ versions in addition to standard versions,” she said.

Sugar sales tumble

Mintel said the fortunes of the retail sugar market had been turbulent in the last couple of years.

The market had been enjoying strong growth in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (the 2012 year had seen sugar sales rocket by 18 per cent year on year taking retail sales to £346 million). This coincided with – and was driven by – a surge in the home baking market. However, 2013 marked a U-turn in the sugar market, with value sales in the UK slipping by 2 per cent year on year. This decline accelerated dramatically in 2014, with sales estimated to have dropped 14 per cent to £298 million, accompanying a 9 per cent decline in volume terms.

Mintel said the decline in the retail sugar market is expected to continue over the next three years. However, the rate of decline is anticipated to steadily abate, with the market stabilising between 2017 and 2018 at £258 million. Over the next five years, sales are forecast to fall 13 per cent.

According to Mintel, currently 55 per cent of consumers said they deemed products which are high in natural sugars to still be healthy and 51 per cent think that products made with honey are “better for you” than those made with sugar. Some 37 per cent said they considered unrefined sugar to be “better for you” than white sugar.

“Consumers’ perceptions of different types of sugar vary, with unrefined sugar, honey and sugar from fruit seen in a more positive light than refined sugar,” Ms Clifford said. “This indicates that reformulations which simply move away from white sugar can help to boost the perceived health credentials of products without resorting to sweeteners,” she said.

Reasons for reducing sugar intake

Among the reasons for limiting sugar intake, Mintel said weight management stood out as the most common reason cited by people who limit their sugar intake (56 per cent), followed by future health concerns (42 per cent). Furthermore, a sizeable 43 per cent of the population said they had noticed an increase in media coverage on “how sugar affects your health”. Among these consumers 62 per cent had taken action to cut down on how much sugar they eat, which Mintel said showed a direct link between media coverage and consumer behaviour.

“Consumers’ attention to sugar has undoubtedly been heightened by the high-profile sugar debate during 2014 which has acted to demonise this ingredient to a certain extent,” said Emma Clifford, Senior Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel. “The fact that media coverage on sugar looks to have had a tangible impact on many consumers’ dietary habits is significant,” she said.

“It indicates the importance for companies or products to avoid being “named and shamed” in the media for their high sugar content and the potential damage this could do,” Ms Clifford said. “It also suggests that being shown in a positive light in the media, for example for leading the way with reformulations using natural sweeteners, could help to boost positive perceptions and sales,” she said.

Sweeteners – the ‘natural’ choice

With estimated sales of £57 million in 2014, Mintel said the artificial sweeteners segment captures just 16 per cent of the overall sugar and sweeteners market.

The value of the market was broadly stable between 2009 and 2012. However, sales fell by 5 per cent in 2013, with the same rate of decline anticipated for 2014. The current decline in the sweeteners market is expected to continue over the next five years.

Mintel found that UK consumers remained wary of artificial sweeteners, with half (49 per cent) of the population expressing concern about the use of these ingredients in food and non-alcoholic drinks. By contrast, ‘naturally sourced’ sweeteners were met with far less resistance, only 10 per cent of people think ‘natural’ sweeteners are bad for them, with the rest of adults split between disagreeing (46 per cent) and not being sure either way (44 per cent). Indeed, over a third (35 per cent) of consumers said they would like to see more food products which use naturally sourced sweeteners such as stevia.

“‘Naturalness’ appears to have become almost synonymous with healthiness and elicits trust from consumers, while anything artificial people tend to be wary of,” Ms Clifford said. “To appeal to consumers who are conscious of their sugar intake, naturally sourced sweeteners provide an alternative to artificial sweeteners which people are far more accepting of,” she said.