Why low-sugar treats are trending – and how to sell them

18 October 2023, 13:00 PM
  • With diabetes and obesity on the rise in the UK and more people searching for high-quality, sugar-free alternatives that taste great, how can fine food retailers tick all the boxes?
Why low-sugar treats are trending – and how to sell them

Many Brits are now interested in buying products that are healthier for them, according to new data.

People in the UK are taking deliberate steps towards more mindful and conscious eating, with 49% of UK adults currently trying to maintain a healthy diet, according to new research from Mintel.

Healthy eating takes priority in home cooking, Mintel found, with the majority of adults in the UK viewing eating out as a treat where the healthiness of the food isn’t a deciding factor.

Only one in 10 British diners consider menu options like low-calorie, vegetarian, vegan, or halal diets as crucial factors when selecting a restaurant, but more than 50% of people want to buy ‘better for you’ food items and avoid ultra-processed foods at home.

What’s behind the demand for low-sugar food?

The Health Survey for England 2021 estimated that 25.9% of adults in England were obese, and a further 37.9% were overweight but not obese. 

What’s more, one third of children (37.7%) are above a healthy weight by the time they leave primary school. 

Obesity-related ill health is estimated to cost the NHS £6bn per year, according to Mintel, rising to £10bn a year by 2050.

According to the Obesity Health Alliance, the UK population consumes 50% more sugar than recommended, with 60% of our sugar coming from just three categories: biscuits, confectionery and desserts.

HFSS rules

In 2020, the government announced its strategy for tackling obesity, which has centred around the introduction of new rules targeting the promotion of food and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS)

In England, a ban on HFSS products in prominent store locations took effect in October 2022, and additional rules to ban promotions of HFSS products and advertising online and on TV before 9pm have been delayed. Read our full explainer on HFSS rules here.

Public supports more rules on sugar

It might be surprising to hear, considering how much we love our biscuits, chocolates and sweets, but public polling in May 2023 for the Obesity Health Alliance found that 68% of the public would support further food levies if the revenues raised were invested in children’s health. 

It found 73% of the public support action by the government to require food manufacturers to reduce sugar and salt from everyday foods.

“There is no doubt that there is still far too much sugar in the food and drink being sold to us,” says Barbara Crowther, Children’s Food Campaign manager at Sustain. “It is shocking to think that tooth decay is the number one reason for children aged five to nine being admitted to hospital, and we’re seeing a rise in cases of Type 2 diabetes amongst young people too. This is all entirely preventable.”

Barbara points to the Soft Drinks Levy, which has “bucked the overall trend by reducing total sugar in soft drinks by 34% since 2015”. Meanwhile, a report of the government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme from 2015 to 2020 showed overall volume of sugar sold across product categories being monitored actually increased by 7.2%. In confectionery, it had risen by almost 27% since 2015. 

What does the demand for low-sugar food and drink mean for retailers?

It’s well known that customers enjoy picking up the occasional artisan chocolate bar or bag of traditional sweets at their local fine food retailer. For delis, farm shops and food halls, there’s no need to abandon indulgent products completely. But it could be wise to start stocking products making waves in the no and low sugar category, such as:
Sugar-free sweetsSmart Sweets gummy bears have only 4g of sugar per bag, while Tweek Sweets chews contain 95% less sugar than similar products.
Low-sugar chocolateWizards 0% offers a sugar-free chocolate bar, and Pure Heavenly’s Dark Cherry contains less than 1% sugar per 85g bar.
Products using sugar alternativesYum Yum Tree’s low-sugar fudge is made with naturally derived Norwegian birch sap, while Rollagranola’s low-sugar granola uses plant fibre and natural sweeteners to lower its sugar content.

“Forward-looking and responsible companies should be looking now to get ahead of future regulation, and corporate investors are increasingly expecting food companies to build strategies for better health,” Barbara tells Speciality Food

For retailers, it will pay to get behind the companies who are leading the charge on these healthier changes. “Those companies who change their recipes and adapt their product portfolios now, will be contributing to a healthier, more productive population for the long term, and that has to be better for business and better for everyone,” Barbara says.

Overcoming taste challenges with alternative sweeteners

Although customers want to eat healthier, they don’t want to compromise on taste. In Mintel’s research, 52% of respondents said changes to the taste of food and drink products should not be made in order to make them healthier, while 38% disagreed with the statement. 

Brands that want to continue to hit the sweet spot with their customers will have to find alternative ways to sweeten their products. As of 2021, 15% of new products launched in the UK had a ‘no added sugar’ claim, and innovators have used products such as sweet flavouring agents and natural sweeteners like dates and monk fruit.

What are the most popular natural sweeteners?

1. Stevia
A popular low-calorie sweetener, extracted from leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant.

2. Erythritol
A sugar alcohol found naturally in some fruits, which tastes very similar to sugar.

3. Xylitol
A sugar alcohol sweetener with a flavour similar to sugar with potential benefits for dental and digestive health.

4. Yacon syrup
A sweetener that is harvested from the yacon plant, which is found in South America.

5. Monk fruit extract
A calorie-free sweetener from the Southeast Asian monk fruit.

6. Inulin
A functional fibre used in low/reduced sugar products.

Don’t get too caught up in sweeteners, however, as simpler is often better. As Mintel explains, “With the British Nutrition Foundation warning that many meal replacements contain potentially harmful ultra-processed ingredients like artificial preservatives and sweeteners, sticking to a balanced diet and five-a-day is a safer choice for health-conscious Brits.”

How to sell low-sugar food and drink

Looking to stock and sell more low-sugar or sugar-free chocolates, sweets or other products? Emma Clifford, associate director of food and drink at Mintel, advises that retailers help customers find products that will deliver on value.

“With the cost-of-living crisis hampering healthy eating, helping consumers to eat healthily on a budget will resonate widely, with the grocers in a strong position to offer meaningful support here,” Emma says.

“Strong nutritional credentials can boost foods’ good value for money perceptions, especially if linked to long-lasting satiety. Meanwhile, forging links to relaxation is timely during this stressful period,” she adds.

Mintel’s HFSS report includes recommendations to group healthy foods together in store to garner interest among customers. Retailers can also boost goodwill by offering guidance on better-for-you choices – even better for independents if there’s a local option or artisan producer you can suggest in place of a big-name brand.

“Such clearer signposting of healthier products will appeal both to those looking for help in navigating healthy choices, offering a ‘stamp of approval’ to products, and to health-minded consumers looking to speed up their shopping,” Mintel says.

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