The National Sweet Tooth: How Consumer and Shopper Sweetener Trends are Shaping Up

By Chris von der Linden and John Crawford

Spring has sprung, and Easter basket goodies are filling seasonal aisles and island caps at retailers across the U.S—in place of the Valentine’s, Christmas and Halloween candies that preceded them. Holiday sweet treats are still clearly a tradition; in 2017, more than $1.7 billion was spent on candy just for Valentine’s Day, according to the National Retail Federation. However, in the rest of the store, IRI’s newest insights into consumers’ perceptions about sugar and sweets suggest that these holidays are outliers, with the average consumer paying more attention to the kind of sweetener in their foods and aiming to reduce their overall sugar and carb consumption day-to-day.

Consumers’ Shifting Preference Toward Better-for-You Claims

When polled during IRI’s 2017 New Product Survey, 44 percent of healthy eaters – those who follow a strict diet or are conscientious about eating – identified “low in sugar” as a top consideration for them when evaluating new food and beverage products.

Consumers’ shifting preference for certification and transparency has created momentum for claims such as “GMO-Free,” “Vegan,” “USDA Organic” and “Contains Probiotics.” Some categories have seen sales growth as high as 24 percent in products with these labels. “Naturally Sweetened” claims saw growth as high as 21 percent, except for honey, which actually saw decreased sales. Among alternative sweetener claims, however, out of five categories, only Stevia saw growth.

Consumer Perceptions Toward Natural and Alternative Sweeteners

Across generations, 58 percent of consumers report avoiding sugar, with 85 percent citing health purposes and 58 percent attributing weight concerns for the shift. Parents, in particular, are concerned with improving their children’s overall health, mood and concentration, and preventing weight gain, by monitoring sugar intake as well as the type of sweetener found in the foods and beverages their kids consume. In contrast to parents and younger generations, older generations (baby boomers, retirees and seniors) are more likely to purchase aspartame and sucralose, be on low-sugar diets, and be somewhat more positive toward artificial sweeteners. However, the majority still say artificial sweeteners are “worse for you” than sugar.

Consumers, in general, have negative connotations of the term, “artificially sweetened,” citing definitions like, “not real sugar,” “fake sugar,” and, “chemicals,” which can be attributed to expected net declines. In contrast, natural sugars like honey and stevia are expected to see net growth. In fact, 65 percent of those surveyed said honey is the “best for you” option among all sugar alternatives, even though honey sales are actually down slightly.

The Future Looks Sweet

Retailers wanting to meet current and future consumer needs will need to take a number of steps to educate and attract shoppers. Consumer aversion toward sugar is a macro trend that is here to stay and will only increase as time goes on. Retailers and brands looking to grow will need to clear up confusion around “good” versus “bad” sweeteners while increasing claims around naturally sweetened and reducing artificially sweetened claims. The market is ripe for “more natural” alternatives to sugar.

Most important will be targeting different categories of shoppers with their preferred sweeteners. Older consumers are currently much more accepting of sucralose, aspartame and products with these sweeteners, but younger consumers overwhelmingly prefer Stevia and its “better for you” brand message. As older consumers move towards that same perception, products with Stevia and other sweeteners that are perceived as being more natural will gain in popularity across all ages.

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