Sugar is sneaking up on preservatives & chemicals as most troublesome ingredient, CivicScience finds

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Consumers appear to becoming more sophisticated and specific about which ingredients or characteristics they find most troublesome in packaged foods and beverages, new research from CivicScience suggests. 

The consumer research company found the percentage of US adults who consider the nebulous category of “preservatives/chemicals” the most harmful of a fixed list of nutrients and ingredient characteristics fell slightly in the past year, while those who say total and added sugar is the most harmful jumped notably.

Specifically, CivicScience found 33% of adults surveyed in 2016 said preservatives and chemicals were the most harmful of a list that also included saturated fat, sodium, carbs, added and total amount of sugar and GMOs. This is down slightly from 36% the previous year.

This shift appears to have moved almost completely towards added and total amount of sugar, which 29% of adults said were the most harmful in 2016 compared to only 24% who said the same thing in 2015.

Almost all the other ingredients and characteristics on this list held steady, except saturated fat, which declined slightly as well.

“If this trend continues, we could expect to see the number of people who believe sugars are most harmful to surpass the number of people who think preservatives and chemicals are most harmful,” Laura Albert, CivicScience’s marketing manager, notes on the firm’s website.

A closer look at consumers’ concerns about sugar reveal that 17% of adults believe the total amount of sugar is most harmful, while 12% believe added sugar is the most harmful, CivicScience data shows. Albert explains on the company’s website that both answers were trending upwards the same, so CivicScience decided to combine the options.

The close division between consumer concern with added and total sugar reveals that consumers don’t care whether or not the sweetener is added or natural – a degree of understanding and awareness that FDA is hoping to sharpen by including in the updated Nutrition Facts label a separate line for added sugar.

After the agency launched the new Nutrition Facts label, CivicScience dug into how the change might alter consumers’ shopping habits. It found 18% of consumers said they would try to minimize or avoid products with any added sugar, while 22% said they would try to minimize or avoid products with more than a certain amount of added sugar, Albert told FoodNavigator-USA in an email.

She added that CivicScience “would expect this trend to continue to increase once ‘added sugars’ is a mandatory line item on the majority of packaged foods.”

Just because sugar is taking some of the heat off chemicals and preservatives, doesn’t mean the latter is no longer a concern for manufactures, Albert notes on CivicScience’s website.

Rather, she suggests consumers may be less concerned about chemical and preservatives because they now expect their products to be free-from these ingredients.

Given this shift in consumer thinking, Albert recommends, “food and beverage companies and restaurants may want to start thinking of switching the focus from ‘preservative-free’ and ‘all natural’ to terms such as ‘made from natural sugars’ or ‘no sugar added.’

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