By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
When it comes to choosing table sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in food products, research shows consumers don't have a preference.
Several top product brands -- such as Kraft, Hunts and Heinz -- replaced lower-cost HFCS with table sugar in their products due to what they claim was consumer concern. Research now shows that while consumers do desire lower added sugars in food products, they are not concerned about the type of sugar.
"A lot of the discussion or focus on types of sugar ... has really been misplaced," said Martin Concannon, founder and managing director of Lafayette Associates, a Lexington, Ky., consulting firm for multinational companies, which does some consulting work for the Corn Refiners Association.
The companies that made the switch in the late 2000s have switched back to HFCS because there was no improvement in their sales performance and in some cases there was a detrimental effect, Concannon said during a Sept. 26 webinar on sweetener strategies, hosted by Dairy Foods and sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association.
Some marketers made decisions without a full or up-to-date view of consumer sentiment toward the caloric level of sweeteners, he said.
"Understanding consumers is key to navigating the changing sweetener landscape. There's a big gap between what people say and what they do," he said.
Two consumer surveys, sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, showed that consumers are far more concerned with added sugars and balanced nutrition than they are with HFCS.
Consumers show their needs in what they buy, and HFCS-free products show very little demand, he said.
A 2012 survey by Mintel of more than 2,000 consumers showed 17 percent were concerned with added sugars, but only 4 percent were concerned with HFCS.
"How did high fructose corn sugar get so much heat and companies switched to table sugar when only 4 percent were concerned?" Concannon asked.
In another survey conducted by NPD Group this year, consumers were given either an aided or unaided questionnaire. In the aided survey, 39 percent were concerned with added sugars, and 35 percent were concerned with HFCS.
In the unaided survey, 10 percent were concerned with added sugars and only 1 percent was concerned with HFCS.
The marketers and decision-makers behind the switch to table sugar were really responding to what they thought was the demand, but the consumer research didn't hold up, he said.