Enjoy a 15% discount on all purchases until the 31st of March 2023 using the promo code EOFWEB22 at check out!

Food and Nutrition Consumers are engaging with food and nutrition like never before. Our in-depth analysis examines the most important implications across the industry, providing market intelligence, original thinking and key insights.

Better-For-You Products and the Inescapable Sugar-Fat Diet Seesaw

Simone Baroke Profile Picture
Simone Baroke Bio

Diet fashions may change but as recent research has demonstrated once again, some aspects of dieting behaviour remain predictable. If the fat goes down, the sugar goes up, and the other way around, regardless of official healthy eating guidelines. For the industry, the implication is that demand for better-for-you (BFY) products is destined to hold steady overall, but that it may vacillate between reduced sugar and reduced fat, depending on which dieting fashions are currently popular in a particular geography.

Fat or Sugar - Something has to Give

When consumers embark on a diet, the upshot is that they have to cut down on something, and this usually means curbing their intake of calorie-dense foods, ie those high in fat and sugar. However, in practice, this self-imposed moderation regime is not usually executed by reducing fat and sugar in equal measure, but rather by ‘substituting’ one for the other. This is a well-known pattern that applies to most of the weight loss strategies employed in the real world.

In July 2013, a new scientific review was published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, confirming, once more, this particular dieting phenomenon, also known as the ‘sugar-fat seesaw’. The researchers evaluated 53 papers and came to the conclusion that there was indeed a “strong and consistent inverse association in the percentage of energy coming from fats and sugars”, essentially meaning that people whose diets were high in fat tended to be low in sugar and vice versa.

What’s on a Plate?

Official healthy eating guidelines commonly prescribe how much of an individual’s daily calorie intake ought to come from sugar (carbohydrates) and how much from fat, usually in the form of percentages. Even for the not-mathematically challenged, the assumption that anyone would be planning out their daily food intake by applying these guidelines is, quite frankly, absurd.

Public health bodies have recognised this and now the preferred way of conveying healthy eating guidelines is via a pictorial representation of a plate which shows the different proportions that meal components, such as vegetables, grains, meat, dairy etc, should claim.

The plate format is useful, but only up to a point. Consumers may succeed in assembling their dinner to look like these lofty examples, but as for other meals, a certain degree of abstraction ability is required. For example, a standard cereal-based breakfast looks nothing like the MyPlate (US) or the Eatwell Plate (UK), and making an ordinary sandwich lunch conform to these ideals may be equally challenging for many.

To help consumers, healthy eating plates are usually accompanied by a barrage of additional advice, which can, inadvertently, serve to promote the sugar-fat seesaw. One ubiquitous piece of healthy eating advice, for instance, is to choose low-fat dairy products over full-fat. Making such a seemingly straightforward substitution, however, may not actually result in a healthier product being chosen.

A prime example is yoghurt, where low-fat versions are usually considerably higher in sugar to make up for the lost sensory experience resulting from fat removal. Without reading and comparing labels, consumers would be oblivious to the fact that by sacrificing some of their favourite yoghurt’s natural creaminess, they have just said yes to an extra teaspoon of sugar.

Popular Diets Prone to ‘Seesawing’

If a dieter’s weight loss strategy is centred around curbing calories, then reducing dietary fat intake is useful. After all, 1g of fat, be it saturated or unsaturated, has twice the calorific value of 1g of either protein or carbohydrate. A low-fat diet, however, is not automatically a balanced and healthy one. There is a great temptation for the low-fat dieter to cut out ‘good’ fats because, in reality, mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids are much easier to avoid than saturated fats. When dieters cave in to cravings, they tend to go for cheese, cake, chocolate and other items laden with saturated fats, rather than avocados, nuts and sardines. Rather than adding three tablespoonfuls of heart-healthy olive oil to their lunchtime salad, many would prefer to have a slice of cake for dessert, hopping straight onto the sugar-fat seesaw.

Popular diets tend to push the dieter towards one way or the other – low carb (which includes sugar) or low fat. The Atkins Diet was famously lambasted for being an artery clogging saturated fat fest and starving the body so much of carbohydrates that it would go into a state of ketosis, which, it is argued by some, has negative consequences for health.

There are many incarnations of low-carb diets less severe than Atkins, and they all veer towards low sugar as they eschew foods made from refined carbohydrates, which includes sugar, but they tend to be permissive with regard to fat intake. For example, the Scandinavian diet encourages its adherents to indulge in full-fat cheese, butter and cream.

Another current craze termed Intermittent Fasting (IF), and which is also known under various other guises, such as 5:2 or 6/1 diets etc, requires drastic calorie restriction on select days, and this is most easily achieved by keeping fat to a bare minimum.

It would be remiss not to take the personal preference factor into account. People are often asked whether they are “sweet or savoury”? While some are regularly overcome by insatiable cravings for sweet foods, others have more of a predilection for the fatty, fried kind. Weight Watchers’ latest PointsPlus system, which seeks to give its adherents as much flexibility as possible, takes these inclinations into account, effectively permitting its followers to seesaw at will.

Naturally, when choosing a diet programme, people gravitate towards the kinds of diets that will allow them to regularly indulge in the foods they are least prepared to do without. Human evolutionary history is littered with a dearth of famines. We are genetically programmed to seek out energy-dense foods, and there is just no getting around that biological imperative.

BFY Will Endure

So, what are the implications of the enduring sugar-fat seesaw for the industry? Quite simply, there will always be a call for foods and beverages reduced in fat and sugar, although the popularity of the various categories may fluctuate over time.

Our statistics show that BFY reduced-fat and -sugar food and beverage value sales combined amounted to US$144 billion globally in 2012, up from US$114 billion in 2007. Reduced-fat packaged food accounted for 60% of the total, but all categories demonstrated steady and moderate value growth (except for reduced-fat beverages, which is a small category of very limited scope) of around 30% over the 2007-2012 review period.

Even in the US, a mature (and hence less dynamic) market for BFY products, encouraging growth spurts continued to be seen. For instance, reduced-sugar liquid concentrates stood out with an impressive 89% value gain in 2012, driven primarily by Kraft Foods Group’s Mio.

Reduced-fat chocolate confectionery, a notoriously challenging type of product when it comes to garnering consumer acceptance, performed well in the same year with a 4% gain. Other well-performing categories included reduced-fat soup, and sugar-free pastilles, gums, jellies and chews.

Interested in more insights? Subscribe to our content

Explore More

Shop Our Reports

Eating at Home: Opportunities in the New Consumer Landscape

The eating-at-home business has surged in the last years, offering more options for consumers. This includes meal delivery, ready meals, home-cooked food, and…

View Report

Personalisation and Digital Wellness in Food and Nutrition

Personalisation’s appeal is intensifying as modern consumers demand greater convenience and efficiency. Increasing awareness of the importance of nutrition for…

View Report

Occasion Innovation in Snacks: Routine Concepts

As consumers consider and preplan their snack purchases more in lieu of economic challenges, anchoring innovations around consumer routines and need states has…

View Report
Passport Our premier global market research database with detailed data and analysis on industries, companies, economies and consumers. Track existing and future opportunities to support critical decision-making across all functions within your organisation Learn More