Has Perception of Sugar Become Reality?

The IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey is in its 13th year of gauging American consumer perceptions, beliefs and behaviors around issues related to health and diet, food components, food production, and food safety. The 2018 survey explored new topics, such as food insecurity, diets and eating patterns, and how consumers’ diets compare to dietary guidelines and expert recommendations.

But some topics in our annual survey are staples. Take sugar, for example — it’s always top of mind for people, according to our surveys. And this year was no exception.

In 2018, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of our survey participants said they are trying to limit or avoid sugar in their diet. For those attempting to do so, the most commonly cited strategy is by drinking water instead of caloric beverages.

While water is the healthiest beverage choice you can make, it doesn’t have to be your only choice if you’re looking to cut back on calories. Replacing caloric drinks with other no- and low-calorie options is a weight-maintenance strategy that many have found success with as well. In a survey of members of the National Weight Control Registry, the largest longitudinal study of successful weight-loss maintainers, over 50 percent of all respondents stated that they regularly consume low-calorie beverages, 78 percent of whom felt that doing so helped control their calorie intake.

Our consumer surveys have consistently shown that weight loss and weight-management goals are top drivers of food and beverage choices. In recent years, people increasingly view carbohydrates (and sugar specifically) as the calorie source most likely to cause weight gain, which may, in part, explain the popularity of the keto diet and Whole30 diets.

In our 2018 survey, more people than in previous years blame carbs and sugars for weight gain. While sugars were the most cited cause of weight gain (33 percent), carbohydrates ranked second at 25 percent, up from 20 percent in 2017. Both of those numbers are the highest since 2011. By comparison, other macronutrients — fats (16 percent) and protein (3 percent) — as well as “all sources” (17 percent) lagged behind when placing blame.

Losing and maintaining weight is a science and an art. Consumer surveys, such as our Food & Health Survey, represent the art: people’s perceptions, beliefs and self-reported goals and behaviors. The art is sometimes at odds with the science. Consumer insights can help us connect the two by identifying trends and knowledge gaps to better understand the motivations behind our decisions.