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Sugar. Is it Really the “Dietary Villain of Our Time” and What are Food Manufacturers to Do?

Last Sunday night (14/6/15), 60 Minutes ran a story called ‘Secret Sugar’. Leila McKinnon described sugar as “the dietary villain of our time” and Allison Langdon opened with “many of the foods marketed as healthy are in fact choc-full of sugar…there’s a massive industry pulling every trick in the book to get you and I hooked on sugar”. It is true that we are consuming much more sugar than we should. However, I believe the problem is largely a result of a lack of nutritional education amongst consumers, rather than a deliberate ploy by food manufactures to get us hooked on sugar.


Food manufactures add sugar to their products to make them taste good. Have you ever tried a biscuit without sugar? It is bland and tasteless. A product like chocolate is too bitter and almost inedible when sugar is absent. Sweetness is required, in some form and amount, to help make our food palatable.


Food labelling laws require manufacturers to clearly list all ingredients and display a nutrition panel – including % daily intake for sugars. The sugar content of some products is surprising, but nothing is hidden and nothing is secret.


Consumers need to be better educated on how to understand nutrition panels, make good food choices, and avoid over eating. Research has shown that when consumers are informed about the nutritional content of food, they make healthier choices.


Dr Robert McBride, my mentor and expert in consumer behaviour and sensory psychology, was asked on the program if we should be giving up sugar, his answer was “No, absolutely not. It’s one of the pleasures of life. We need these pleasures”.


It is this pleasure we get from eating great tasting food that helps us decide which brands we buy and which ones we avoid. A food product must taste good for us to consider buying it again and for it to succeed in the market place.


In the last few years consumers have been demanding foods with less sugar and/or alternative natural sweeteners (eg stevia, honey, rice malt syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave nectar etc).  Many big food manufacturers are responding with new products or reformulations, and new players are entering the market.


Food manufacturers need to be cautious with how they address this trend. When a well-liked product is tampered with and replaced with an inferior tasting offering, it is only a matter of days before consumers start venting on Twitter or Facebook. Take Coca Cola’s Vitaminwater in the US as an example. It had long been criticised as being too high in sugar, so last year Coca Cola decided to reduce the sugar and reformulate. Within days of the new formulation hitting the shelves, loyal users wrote comments on the Vitaminwater Facebook page like “The new taste is nasty. You just lost a customer. I can’t drink it now.” Coca Cola went in to damage control and were eventually forced to return to the original formula.


So how do food manufactures avoid costly mistakes like Vitaminwater in the US? They need to start with a good strategy. They must first determine if they can reformulate the existing product and achieve a near identical sensory profile to the current offering. It is critical that this is properly researched with regular users of the product to ensure that alienation wouldn’t occur and sales would continue. If it is not possible to produce a near identical product, then a separate new reduced sugar variant would need to be introduced. This new variant must also be acceptable to the target market, otherwise it will fail to take off. After learning important lessons, Coca Cola released a new reduced sugar variant a few months ago – Coke Life. This time they got the taste right.


I think it’s fair to say that when consumed in moderation, sugar is a harmless addition to most people’s diet. Better nutrition education is required to help make informed choices and tackle its overconsumption. As consumers, we should be able to continue to buy the products we love and enjoy and make our own decisions. Food manufacturers should continue to work on reduced sugar offerings, but they need to be diligent with any changes they make to their current product formulations.