Sugar producers think their sweet product deserves a better profile on the health and nutrition stage, and some nutrition researchers and industry experts explained to them Tuesday at the Sweetener Symposium in Asheville, N.C., how they may make might happen.

David Lockwood, director of Mintel Consulting, for example, pointed to USDA data showing the average American’s daily consumption climbed 24% from 1970 to 2008 — up by 507 calories — but emphasized 80% of that increase was in fats, oils, and grains, versus 14% in added sugars.

So, he says, people advising consumers on nutrition “should be saying, ‘if you want to improve your health via eating, 80% of your effort should be on fats and oils and grains, and a small portion (of effort) on sugar.’”

Meanwhile, USDA reports Americans’ per capita intake of total caloric sweeteners (sugar, syrup, honey), in fact, has trended down by 20 percent in the past 20 years.

So industry leaders like Courtney Gaine, president of The Sugar Association and moderator of Tuesday’s discussion, would like to reformulate how consumers view sugar in their diets, based on realities of actual markets and human health.

She points out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been advising people to restrict sweeteners intake since 1980, and in 2015 finally settled on a suggestion to limit added sugars to 10% of daily calories.

Health officials have linked high sweeteners intake to diabetes and obesity. “The concept of moderation we definitely support,” Gaine said, adding her belief that the 10% share of calories may be appropriate.

Courtney Gaine

Courtney Gaine, The Sugar Association

However, she says, the guidelines’ recommended daily consumption for all other nutrient categories are based on research establishing the body’s minimum needs, but the 10 percent for sweeteners represents only what was left over in the total allowance for calories. “It’s not based on health outcomes,” she says, and it didn’t recognize the body’s actual need for sugars.

In his report to the symposium about consumer attitudes about sugar, Afshin Mohamadi, a partner in Quadrant Strategies, advised sugar producers to emphasize that sugar is an unadulterated natural product, made from plants (beets and cane), when they promote their product. Many consumers think of sugar as a chemical or heavily processed substance, he said.

Also, consumers will have a more positive view of sugar if they understand its importance (as glucose) in critical brain and body functions, he said.

Further, he suggests that consumers are thinking less about diets these days, and more about wellness in a balanced and healthful lifestyle, so promoting sweets in that vein may be more successful.

Note that another upcoming marketing hurdle for sugar arrives on Jan. 1, when large U.S. food and beverage makers (small manufacturers, a year later) must add a line to their product labels specifying “added sugar” along with the “total sugar” line.

Gaine points out that some big companies — such as Hershey’s and Coca-Cola — are already using the new labels, and a lot of sugar-containing beverages have been reformulated. But she says the mandate’s impact remains unclear overall.

She expects most manufactures will “just keep their products” as is and list the sugar content, but many will also opt to market new alternative low-, reduced-, and no-sugar products.

Lockwood points out, too, sugar is surely not a hard sell in the market, since folks just naturally like sugar: “We’re hard-wired to like sweet things.”

Amber Wilcox, also presenting Mintel’s research findings, said people think about sugar mostly as pleasurable and fun. Mintel surveys found that mentions of sugar in American consumer conversions were positive 85% of the time – a higher positive than in mentions of coffee (80%) or cats (67%).
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