Stop 'n Eat 'n Go

Consumers Get It: Stop That Sugar!

People seem to be getting the message. Stop the sugar. Sugar is bad. A recent study tells us that traffic light labels are a good way to get that message across to consumers. Even if they don’t know much about healthy nutrition, they’re getting the message about sugar. In fact, these findings did not surprise the researchers, Ola Anabtawi et al. They explained in their conclusions:

Despite a lack of knowledge about the recommendations underpinning the TLL criteria, decisions made by participants concerning the healthfulness of food products were significantly influenced by sugar content. TLL appears to guide consumer beliefs in the absence of deep knowledge. The dominance of sugar in decision making is unsurprising in the current public health climate.

Guiding Choices with Traffic Light Labels

The study used a conjoint analysis to see which macronutrients would drive consumer choices based on traffic light labels. Although these labels highlight sugar, salt, and fat, consumers still have to make tradeoffs. The researchers wanted to know what consumers will prioritize. Which problem do they most try to avoid?

It was not even close. Sugar was the baddest of the bad. Excess salt, fat, and saturated fat just didn’t scare consumers nearly as much. The other noteworthy finding was that consumers really didn’t understand the facts behind the stoplights. They just knew they should avoid the sugar if they wanted to eat more healthfully.

Dietitian Carrie Dennett thinks this might not be helpful for mass communication. She recently wrote in the Washington Post:

The danger is that labeling foods as “green,” “yellow,” or “red” won’t really help us become healthier eaters — just guiltier ones.

Beating a Dead Horse?

U.S. Trends In Caloric Sweeteners per CapitaTo a certain extent, all of this exhortation about the dangers of sugar seems a bit like beating a dead horse. This research in the UK certainly suggests that consumers have gotten the message.

And if you look at the consumption of sugar and other caloric sweeteners (corn syrup, honey, etc), it’s pretty clear that consumers in the U.S. have already changed their ways. Sugar consumption peaked in 1999. Ever since, it’s been declining sharply.

In 2018, per capita consumption was back down to levels that we haven’t seen since the early 1980s.

And yet, that turnaround in sugar consumption has had no discernible effect on obesity rates. Between 2000 and 2016, prevalence of obesity grew by a third. This was just as true for children as it was for adults.

Nonetheless, all of our energy seems to go into a singular focus on sugar and how bad it is. It sells a lot of self help books. Many people are making a good living by coaching people to “detox” from sugar. A few academics have made quite a reputation for themselves with the whole “sugar is toxic” agenda.

But now it’s surely worth asking: have we reached a point of diminishing returns on this message track? Are the rants about sugar crowding out more balanced messaging about nutrition and health?

We suspect so.

Click here for the study by Anabtawi et al and here for further perspective on traffic light labels from Dennett.

Stop ‘n Eat ‘n Go, photograph © Judy and Ed / flickr

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February 23, 2020

One Response to “Consumers Get It: Stop That Sugar!”

  1. February 23, 2020 at 10:20 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    Centuries of bitterness about the sweet stuff has not stopped our love hate relationship with sugar
    Any kid will tell you, “how could something that tastes so good be bad”