Real Sugar Is Grown by Real People

This is a basic truth many consumers don’t know.

Published online: Jun 05, 2019 Feature Courtney Gaine, President & CEO, The Sugar Association
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This column appears in the June/July 2019 issue of Sugar Producer.

What is sugar, and where does it come from? Those sound like some simple questions to us, but not so for many consumers.

Understanding Consumer Perceptions 

While sugar is still the most popularly used sweetener (77 percent reported using table sugar in the past 30 days, with honey No. 2 at 61 percent), we’ve learned that consumers still don’t know a whole lot about their favorite sweetener. Our insights come from the Sugar Association’s 2018 annual benchmark survey of 1,500 U.S. consumers. We conduct this survey, along with focus groups, so we can understand how consumers feel and what they know about sugar, and to help us figure out the best ways to share facts to increase their knowledge.

Sugar Comes from Plants

Shockingly, our survey results showed only 29 percent of consumers agree that table sugar is a naturally occurring sugar (honey was No. 1 at 79 percent). From all our research, it is clear consumers don’t know how or where sugar is grown, and they have even less of an idea about how sugar is processed and refined. In an era of knowing where your food comes from meaning everything to consumers, we see this as a huge problem—but one on which we can all work together and make real progress. The good news is that most consumers (72 percent) are interested in learning more about sugar, added sugars and sweeteners. Of course, we also found many consumers overconfident in what they think they already know.

So, What Do Consumers Need to Know?

Consumers need to know that sugar comes from sugarbeets and sugarcane. They need to know what these plants look like and where they’re grown. They want to meet the people who grow the crops. They want to know the steps of processing and refining. They really want to know how sugar gets white. They want to see the facilities and meet the folks who work there. Showing simple diagrams of processing and refining are effective. When focus group participants were presented with infographs of the process used to extract sugar from the sugarbeets and sugarcane, they immediately began to view sugar as more natural. Providing them with this objective, accurate and useful information was helpful, even with the Sugar Association as the source of the information.

Consumers see the sugar industry as the trusted source of information about where sugar comes from. Let’s own that space. Reminding consumers about the source of the sugar they find on store shelves and the simple process used to purify it are basic truths for all of us in the industry, but not so basic to the large majority of Americans.

Show Natural, Don’t Say It

“Natural” is a tricky word these days. Sugar is grown in plants and undergoes pretty simple extraction and processing steps, especially compared to other products. However, we must be cautious about saying, “Sugar is natural.” That’s not because it’s not natural, but because there is no clear definition of the word—allowing for a playground of litigation. The Food and Drug Administration has been working on defining “natural” for several years and, while we hope they’ll finish soon, in the meantime we’ve got to exercise prudence. So, instead of saying sugar is natural, we need to show it—which is great, because people don’t read as much these days anyhow.

How to Communicate with Consumers

Social media and online searches are consumers’ primary sources of information. So, get active on social media. Share your beautiful pictures and stories—and share other people’s stories. Be real. The sugar industry is made up of real people who make real sugar. Consumers need to see this.

Consumers continue to be moved by the farm-to-table story. Your story! Continue to share the history, the hard work and the passion that goes into what you do. As a collective industry, we have greatly increased our online voice. Let’s make that voice louder and ensure that facts enter more conversations. And remember, the Sugar Association is here to help. 

You can visit www.sugar.org/resources to download fact sheets and handouts, and to follow and share our social posts at @MoreToSugar on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.