Bakers Journal

“Demon” Sugar and the Consumer

November 7, 2007
By Barbara Lauer

You can’t have your sugar and eat it, too.

demonFor anyone following the development of new products, or even food news headlines, it can’t have escaped them that there is a general anti-sugar movement afoot.  When talking to consumers about healthy lifestyles, sooner or later, the conversation inevitably circles back to sugar.  This has been true for some time, and while the low-carb craze inspired a faddish focus on sugar, the effects of Atkins, South Beach and diets such as “Sugar Busters,” in relation to sugar, might be said to be a lesser node of a much larger consumer mindset that has been building around the ingredient since the 1970s. 

This mindset, which is complex, views sugar with a certain amount of blame as “the culprit” for a wide variety of health issues, including diabetes and obesity, while at the same time, a cultural fixation on “sweet treats” continues to guarantee sugar and sweetened products a central role in celebrations, rewards and indulgences.
In talking with consumers at all levels of wellness involvement, several key themes developed around sugar – all of which highlight one trend toward negative associations between sugar and attempts to live healthier lifestyles.  As voiced by many consumers:
“Sugar is addictive”… a product that contributes to “highs and lows,” hard to break free from.


“Sugar contributes to health problems”… multiple ailments and diseases, ranging from tooth decay to obesity, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are attributed to sugar consumption.

“Sugar is in everything”… through low-carb diet plans (for example, Atkins), consumers have learned that a number of products contain not only sugar, but high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners “to watch.”

“Hidden Sugar” Shocks
During our research on consumer perspectives on sugar and sweeteners, we probed the issue of purchased products that contained “hidden sugar.”  Respondents were considerably emotional, feeling “duped” or “deceived,” with the idea that sugar had been used to boost the quality of an inferior product.  Common language across all levels of wellness consumers included:  shocked, upset, sad, lied to, disappointed – when describing the process of finding sugar hidden in a product.  As we moved toward the core of wellness consumers, the language skewed toward anger – deceived, wary, misled, betrayed – with the intent to switch to no- or low-sugar products upon discovering the hidden sugar.
Sugar Is Bliss
While our research indicates that over half of consumers are trying to avoid sugar, demonizing it strongly, the other half is celebrating all things sweetened more than ever – simply look at the market for indulgence and luxury confectionery and baked goods.  Even recent titles of cookbooks, which use terms like “decadent,” “exotic,” “sinfully,” as if to underscore the almost rapturous place sugar holds in the collective consciousness.  For those who say they aren’t avoiding sugar, important clues as to the successful incorporation of sweetness into their lives came from these comments:
“I don’t overindulge, and a little bit (of sugar) is healthy.”
“Because I don’t have problems with sugar, and love it!”
“Because life is short, so enjoy.”
“Moderation is the key to happiness.”
“Because we enjoy our favourite foods and have sugar within reason.”
For a significant number of consumers (45 per cent), a key to enjoying sugar is to eat it “within reason,” signifying that moderation is an essential step toward enjoying rather than avoiding or fearing sugar. While moderation appears to be a component of healthy lifestyle trends, it is unclear how the large segment of consumers who currently view sugar negatively will learn to overcome their cravings, which tend to lead to overindulgence, a sense of guilt, and even a sense of anger, such as that voiced at finding “hidden sugars.”  One insight lies in the fact that just as we have seen consumers go from avoiding fat to seeking out what they call “good fats,” so, too, may new perspectives on diets, such as those that focus on the Glycemic Index, contribute to consumer trends in the selection of what they consider to be “good carbohydrates” and “bad carbohydrates.”

Not-So-Sweet Dichotomy
Sugar and sweet goods have a long, cultural tradition of indulgence and reward in our society.  Total avoidance of sugar is very difficult for many consumers, who currently are “demonizing” the ingredient and trying to avoid it.  Take heed, and for products that are staples, use less sugar and label clearly – avoiding “hidden sugars” that could alienate these consumers.  At the same time, another huge group of consumers, who embrace moderation, are eager to try new, more extreme indulgences – thus, the not-so-sweet dichotomy our industry faces in 2007.

This article was generated from research kindly provided by David Wright of The Hartman Group,

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