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Consumers Want More and Less.

Byline: Michal Christine Escobar

Consumers' desire for more protein and less sugar is driving current health and wellness product trends.

For decades, Americans have been watching what they eat in an attempt to look and feel healthier. Over the years, fad diets influenced what Americans viewed as the enemy to their health. Enemies have included sugar, fat, carbohydrates and, most recently, gluten.

At present, two health trends seem to be shaping U.S. eating habits. The first trend is Americans' continued love affair with protein. According to "Functional Foods: Key Trends & Developments in Ingredients," a November 2014 report from the Packaged Facts division of Rockville, Md.-based, protein is currently the hottest functional food ingredient trend in the United States.

While Americans can't get enough protein, sugar is once again public enemy No. 1. "Sugar, Sugar Substitute, and Sweetener Trends in the U.S.," a May 2014 report by Packaged Facts, states that in an April 2014 national online consumer survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, 70 percent of respondents said they believe consumers eat too much sugar, and 52 percent agreed with the statement that "sugar is as bad for health as trans fat, saturated fat or cholesterol."

Understanding which consumer groups are most influenced by these trends and where these trends could be headed in the near future could help retailers develop successful store brand products or adapt existing ones.

Build muscle, lose weight

As Packaged Facts reports, protein is undeniably popular among American consumers. In the United States, 94 percent of consumers are aware of protein and understand its benefits, states Pat O'Brien, manager, strategic business development, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., citing research conducted by Health Focus International. What's more, 37 percent of surveyed consumers indicated that they go out of their way to obtain supplements, foods or beverages that contain protein, and 26 percent of these consumers reported increasing their consumption of protein in the past two years.

Consumers who are interested in a high-protein diet include dieters and athletes, states Allison Stowell, RD, CDN, a dietitian with Hannaford Brothers Co., Scarborough, Maine. Dieters believe that a high-protein diet will promote weight loss, while athletes turn to a high-protein diet to enhance muscle development.

Mothers are also interested in a high-protein diet for their children as a way of supporting growth and development, and older consumers are consuming more protein to address frailty, loss of muscle strength and aging, O'Brien states.

More plants, fewer animals

Consumers are looking to a wide variety of sources for their protein needs. For instance, athletes and dieters are often interested in lean protein powders, fish, powdered peanut butter, plain Greek yogurt, eggs and skinless chicken. But these consumers are also drawn to high-protein supplement bars and drinks, Stowell says, which could be concerning, as these supplements are unregulated in the United States and could contain harmful ingredients or flaunt potentially misleading labels.

Also of interest to consumers are non-meat sources of protein. According to O'Brien, about half of consumers say they are looking for non-meat sources of protein, and new product launches with protein derived from vegetables grew by 61 percent in the past five years. Examples of vegetable proteins include peas, lentils and fava beans.

Soy and whey proteins have also been popular sources of protein in the past but tend to provide some off-notes that are hard to mask, states Kim Holman, director of marketing for Wixon, St. Francis, Wis. This reality is leading food scientists and product developers to try other possible proteins that offer a cleaner taste.

And in the near future, a growing number of products could be made with more unusual sources of protein, suggests Karen Buch, RDN, LDN, founder and principal consultant at Nutrition Connections LLC in Central Pennsylvania. Insect proteins such as cricket flour and ground mealworms are emerging ingredients. Marine proteins from sources such as algae, kelp and seaweed are increasing in popularity in the United States, UK and Asia, too.

Regardless of where the protein originates, retailers will want to keep in mind that adding it to store brand products will likely affect the taste.

"Many times, high-protein products taste granular, dry or "medicine'-like," states Molly McBride, corporate dietician for The Kroger Co., Cincinnati.

And adding protein to products could also result in a change in texture since proteins provide water binding, gelation and emulsification, O'Brien adds. Store brand manufacturers might need to adjust the product formulation and/or processing conditions.

Staying power

As for the protein trend itself, Holman believes it is here to stay.

"I think this trend is only going to grow," she says. "I also think that protein works for the way we eat. Americans [are eating] more frequent snacks. Protein can help the snack drive satiety and nutrition."

Global market research firm Mintel agrees with Holman's assessment. In its "Protein Fever" trend report, Mintel states that research continues to support the spreading of protein consumption more evenly over the entire day. This could shift consumer focus from the amount of protein they're consuming to the timing of their consumption -- and could then encourage high-protein ingredients in breakfast products and snack foods.

Of course, the high-protein trend will likely change over the years as other trends come and go, Stowell states. But more than likely, dieters and athletes will continue to use protein as a way to control their hunger and keep their carbohydrate intake in check. Plus, as more consumers seek cleaner labels, fewer ingredients and gluten-free options, high-protein foods likely will "fit the bill" and remain popular choices.

Pulling the sweet tooth

Daily sugar consumption is still high in the United States, where consumers, on average, ingest 73.3 grams of sugar per day from packaged food -- nearly double the global average, states Jack Skelly, analyst for London-based Euromonitor International. High amounts of sugar in processed foods are quickly leading sugar to become one of the most vilified ingredients within food.

Consumers who are shunning sugar are typically the same as those interested in high-protein diets, namely dieters and athletes, Stowell says. These individuals are trying to avoid empty calories and limit their taste for "sweets." Parents also are typically interested in limiting sugar so as to control their children's behavior and reduce their mood swings.

In addition to these groups are consumers who have a medical condition requiring that they abstain from sugar consumption. They could be diabetics or those who need to lose weight for medical reasons, says Luis Ferrey, marketing manager, beverages, Ingredion.

Sugar alternatives

Retailers looking to get in on the reduced-/low- or no-sugar trend could do so with an "easy switch" from sugar to a non-caloric or low-caloric sweetener, McBride states. However, some sweeteners do have a bitter aftertaste and would not be suitable for baking.

Retailers could also look to flavor technologies that use all-natural ingredients in the place of sugar to achieve the desired taste profile, Holman states.

Another option is using ISOMALT, a sugar replacer derived from sugar beet, in conjunction with chicory root fibers, states Jon Peters, president of Beneo Inc., Morris Plains, N.J. Combined, these two ingredients offer a mild sweet taste, reduced calories and, because of their partially- and non-available carbohydrates, they reduce the overall glucose supply.

Less sugar overall

But retailers should keep in mind that "a desire for less sugar does not necessarily equate to a desire for increased use of sugar substitute ingredients," Buch states.

Indeed, the customer who is looking for sugar-free products might be happy with an artificial sweetener replacement, while a customer who is looking for no-added-sugar products would not, states Dan Donovan, spokesperson for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Inc.

Retailers, therefore, could benefit most by studying their consumers, Ferrey adds. Since it takes time for consumers to take a stance on food trends, retailers should keep listening to what their consumers are asking for in stores while monitoring successful new products at Amazon Inc. and other Internet outlets. This information could help retailers develop or adapt private brand products to meet their consumers' needs.

And for retailers that decide that they are going to target sugar reduction in their private brand products, Holman recommends that they develop a sugar-reduction strategy. First they should take a stand on what sugar level is acceptable, and then work with their vendors to meet those guidelines.

Sticking around

Regardless if a retailer chooses to remove sugar or substitute something else for it, promoting the new product with sampling will be very important to gaining customer acceptance, Donovan adds.

"While people are concerned about sugar, "reduced-sugar' products aren't popular because of the perception that their taste or texture won't be as good as their "full-sugar' version," adds Lauren Bandy, nutrition analyst for Mintel.

However, this perception doesn't mean that the low-sugar trend will disappear any time soon.

"We absolutely see this trend continuing," Peters states. "When leading authorities such as the World Health Organization call for better nutritional profiles with less sugar, it's certain these trends will continue worldwide."

Plus, the FDA has proposed changes to the Nutition Facts Panel that would include identifying "added sugars." If approved, this could lead to greater consumer awareness, which could lead to greater consumer demand for less sugar in products, Buch says.
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Author:Escobar, Michal Christine
Publication:Progressive Grocer's Store Brands
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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