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British consumers are eating less sugar, or turning to artificial sweeteners, according to market researchers Mintel.

Latest research finds volume sales of sugar falling by as much as 10% between 1999 and 2004, from some 431,000 tonnes in 1999 to just 390,000 tonnes in 2004.

“The rising concern about health and levels of obesity in Britain today are clearly encouraging consumers to cut back on their sugar intake. What is more, recent diets such as Atkins and GI have also had a negative impact on sugar consumption, as sugar is a real no-go for anyone following these diets,” comments David Bird, senior market analyst at Mintel.

The biggest decline in sugar usage has taken place in dessert making, with just a fifth (21%) of consumers adding sugar to desserts, such as custard and puddings, compared to almost a third (32%) in 2000.  Using sugar in home baking, such as cake- and biscuit-making, has also fallen, with just one in three (33%) adults doing so.  Meanwhile, there has also been a major decline in the use of sugar to sweeten breakfast cereal, falling from over four in ten (42%) in 2000 to just a third (33%) in 2004.
“Interestingly, the decline in using sugar to make desserts, biscuits and cakes is not only a reflection of healthier eating but also of the fall in popularity of home baking.  And although it may seem a positive result that fewer people are using sugar on their cereal, this may in fact be an indication of the growing trend for British to skip breakfast,” said David Bird.

While the volume of sugar sales has seen a dramatic decline, value sales increased by a respectable 12% between 1999 and 2004 to reach £262m (US$503.4m). This increase in market value, despite the fall in volume, is a reflection of consumers trading up to higher value, more specialist premium products.

“It seems that many consumers are no longer satisfied with a conventional bag of white granulated sugar.  Today’s consumers are looking for speciality sugars, such as Demerara and Muscavado, in line with the rise in fine dining in-home and the general trading up when entertaining at home.  For those looking for a healthier approach, low calorie sugars, from Tate & Lyle and Silver Spoon, are also boosting value growth. These “light” sugars are shrewdly positioned to attract the growing number of consumers cutting down on their sugar intake for health reasons but do not find the taste of artificial sweeteners appealing,” said David Bird.

Interestingly, it does seem that the British are reluctant to forfeit sugar in their traditional morning coffee and afternoon tea, despite the dramatic decline in the amount of sugar being bought.

Today, as many as two in five (39%) adults take sugar in their coffee – making this the most popular way of using sugar in the UK.  What is more, adding sugar to tea (37%) has now overtaken, breakfast cereal (33%) as the second most popular use of sugar.

Men seem to have a sweeter tooth than women.  Almost half of men have sugar in their coffee (48%) and tea (45%) compared to the fewer than one in three (31%) women who take sugar in either tea or coffee.

In contrast to the sugar market, the market for artificial sweeteners is faring extremely well, with volume sales growing by a healthy 12% between 2000 and 2004. Indeed, almost a quarter of consumers (24%) are now using sweeteners, with women (26%) and those aged 55 to 64 (31%) driving the growth.

“In a society which is increasingly concerned about the state of its health, the sweetener industry may be well positioned for growth. Once considered stifled by health concerns over side effects and links with diseases such as cancer, the artificial sweetener market continues to gain acceptance with consumers. Manufacturers have dynamised this sector with a raft of new product developments, while investing heavily in improving the taste of their product,” said David Bird.

Surprisingly, the one sector of the market that has failed to deliver against expectation is the organic sector. Consumer response to the offer of organic sugars has generally been flat. Holding a position at the premium end of the market, organic has, in general, not performed as well as, for instance, Fairtrade sugars which continue to gain popularity.

“This goes against two main trends in Britain’s food market today. While other premium sugars are fairing well, organic sugar, which is also priced as a premium product, has not performed nearly as well. This also goes against the growing demand for organic food in general,” said David Bird.