As the world emerges, haltingly from COVID-19, new challenges emerge. In this feature, New Hope Network provides an ongoing update on those challenges and the opportunities they hold. Look for the Industry Health Monitor every other Friday to learn the major news that is affecting the natural products market immediately and the less obvious insights that could dictate where the market may struggle or thrive in the months to come.
Americans may regard sugar as an enemy of good health, but when asked about allies in the battle, New Hope consumer research suggests they are confused rather than empowered by an ever-deeper quiver of natural and artificial sweeteners.
At least in the public mind, it appears, the dividing line between artificial and natural is not clearly drawn for sweeteners.
A survey deployed this week by New Hope's NEXT Data & Insights team surveyed consumers about cane sugar and nine other sweeteners, ranging from stevia to sucralose, and asked them which they were aware of and whether they considered each sweetener natural or artificial. The results were not the validation many in the natural products industry might want to see. While aspartame was called out as "artificial" by more consumers than any other ingredient on the list, several sweeteners accepted as "natural" by many in the natural products industry were seen as "artificial" by large percentages of respondents.
Stevia, consistently labeled by brands as "natural," was considered artificial by a third of consumers. Xylitol, also a favorite in better-for-you products, rates more poorly with consumers, 42% of whom call it artificial, remarkably close to the 48% saying the same for sucralose.
Meanwhile, erythritol, a favorite in Keto diet plans, was called natural by just 14% of respondents and monk fruit, which can't claim any more natural cred than stevia was deemed artificial by only 7% of consumers.
In short, consumers appear confused.
The takeaway for brands and retailers isn't altogether clear. Education is not a clear-cut strategy. At least among natural shoppers, more awareness of an ingredient could mean more questions. For both erythritol and allulose, natural shoppers, who could be considered more educated, were more likely than other shoppers to consider the sweeteners artificial. Or it could be that natural channel shoppers simply question all processed ingredients. Other New Hope research show us more consumers look first at sugar grams than scan for sweeteners in the ingredients panel. All of that makes education more daunting. Both brands and retailers who attempt to inform consumers about the merits of the different sweeteners might be smart to be cautious in their approach, perhaps aiming the information primarily at consumers who are actively seeking it and surely avoiding the semblance of smoke and mirrors obfuscation.
While education is tricky for the sweeteners already on the market, we'd call it essential for any new sweeteners ready to launch to consumers. Passing the taste test might be the biggest hurdle but hitting the shelf with a solid reputation for health should be considered table stakes in the natural products market. Makers of recently introduced fiber-based supplements, for instance, would be wise not to overplay the health benefits.
Those benefits, of course, will always take a backseat for taste for perhaps the largest number of consumers. The issue of artificial sweeteners is clearly a case-by-case/consumer-by-consumer situation, and no sweetener hits all the sweet notes for all consumers. That may help explain why we see more and more products touting "less sugar," rather than taking sugar out completely. It's a matter of taste, we might say—and perhaps more importantly—aftertaste.
Whatever it is, finding the sweet spot has remained elusive, and until the right mix of taste, health benefits and "natural" status is discovered, we can expect consumers to remain confused.