The low-carb diets of the early 2000s demonized sugars in U.S. consumers’ minds, leading them to change their behaviors. Categories with higher levels of sugar, like confections, saw persistent consumption declines. More recently, a change seems to be happening.
When looking at the universe of snack foods as salty snacks, sweet snacks, and better-for you snacks (which are mostly fruits, yogurt, and protein bars), only sweet snacks declined in consumption over the last decade. In 2007, the average American consumed a sweet snack about 383 times per year; that fell to 369 in 2015. However, 2016 and 2017 saw increases, and now that figure is back up to 380 times per year. While consumption has not fully returned to the 2007 level, Americans’ avoidance of confections is clearly waning.
Not all sweetened categories are seeing the same resurgence. There is continued resistance to items such as colas and fruit juices. While these products also contain elevated sugar levels, the motivations for using them differ from what motivates consumption of confections. Consumers reach for confections because they’re interested in a treat or reward, but not to accompany a main meal or serve as a meal replacement. In fact, snack foods at main meals typically center on savory and better-for-you snack foods as there are often healthier motivations during those times.
It seems in today’s environment of sugar avoidance, there are still times reserved for sweet indulgences as long as the product is presented to the consumer as an escape from the ordinary or as a reward for a job well done after a long day. Based on the way consumers use these products, they’re aware confections aren’t part of a healthy diet; rather, they’re part of a brief mental escape. For these products, emotional messages around enjoyment and relaxation resonate the most with consumers.
It’s still important to give consumers a sense of how much is too much. We’re not in the age of bigger is better; consumers appreciate portion-controlled packages that help them sensibly indulge. This allows them to have their sweetened food items as an emotional escape, while still feeling in control of their sugar intake.