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Consumers’ behaviors are finally catching up to their long-held attitudes about avoiding sugar, and operators are faced with the challenge of giving customers what they want while still serving tasty food.
Beating out fat for the first time in 2014, sugar is now public enemy No. 1, with 65 percent of consumers reporting they want to cut back on or eliminate it, per The NPD Group. But sugar’s move to most maligned ingredient didn’t happen overnight, says NPD food and beverage industry analyst Darren Seifer.
“It’s not like it shot up one day,” Seifer says. “What we eat all the time is culturally and habitually based. Our sweet tooth is somewhat cultural; it can change, but it will take a long time.”
The seed of understanding that sugar comprises little more than empty calories was planted back during the low-carb craze of the early 2000s, when people started to grasp the notion of good versus bad carbs. That’s also when consumers began to realize that sugars fell into the bad-carb category.
Getting back to basics
Alongside growing unease over sugar consumption, clean eating started to pick up speed as consumers increasingly embraced wholesome food instead of artificial ingredients. This was largely the impetus for Jason’s Deli to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its entire food menu, which it completed in 2008 following an eight-year phase-out of trans fats (hfcs is still present in some manufactured beverages).
“You start to wonder why [HFCS] is in everything when it’s not really food. The answer is it’s inexpensive,” says Pat Herring, Jason’s Deli research and development director.
The self-distributed, 260-location chain left it to suppliers to remove HFCS, which was replaced in formulations by either cane or beet sugar. As with trans fats before, the process revealed Jason’s Deli’s reliance on large-scale production, Herring says.
“We are tied at the hip to manufactured food and mass production. You don’t do 200–300 restaurants without help,” Herring says. “We’re doing what we can do as a chain—incremental change over time to make food better and healthier. And we have a customer base that seems to get that.”
As part of the HFCS phase-out, Jason’s Deli took fountain drinks off the kids’ menu altogether, replacing them with organic milk, chocolate milk, and apple juice. Consumers can still purchase regular fountain sodas for themselves and their children, along with some cane sugar–sweetened sodas, sweet tea, and unsweetened black currant tea.
“By taking those drinks off the kids’ menu, we gave parents a choice,” Herring says. “Some people are cutting back on sugar because they have to, some because they want to. It’s not our job to nanny America; it’s our job to educate.”
Seifer echoes this sentiment, particularly as it relates to efforts by cities to enact legislation that would levy taxes on sugary beverages or ban large sizes. Some of these measures have already succeeded—despite strong opposition—in Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia.
The price of real food
At the other end of the spectrum, health-focused startups have found a following among the growing number of consumers who value health just as much as convenience and choice.
Soup delivery service turned four-unit fast casual Soup Peddler entered the market specifically because “most soups suck,” says founder David Ansel.
Whereas most manufacturers and large-scale soup-focused operators rely on hidden sugar in their formulas, Ansel avoided this through culinary tweaks and equipment.
“Normally the way soups are prepared, they’re pasteurized during processing, which destroys the flavor profile,” Ansel says. “That’s where added sugar comes in, to make it taste like food again.”
Ansel’s soups, on the other hand, start with a direct-heat sauté of mirepoix (aromatic vegetables), then house-made stock is added, along with featured vegetables, proteins, and starches. The soups are finished with oil-bloomed dry spices, fresh herb blends, acids like lemon juice, and, occasionally, cream. The soups have a 30-day shelf life under refrigeration.
The chain takes a similar approach with its juice and smoothie offerings, blending vegetables and naturally sweet fruits into its juices and smoothies. It also incorporates nuts, raw honey, cold-brewed espresso, rosewater, and local yogurt to its “upper echelon” smoothies. These menu items can range from about $7.25 to $9.25.
“It’s a little bit of sticker shock compared to the lower-echelon smoothie franchises, which are selling ice flavored mostly with syrups or concentrated, processed fruit juices,” Ansel says. “But a 24-ounce smoothie is a pound and a half of premium prepared food like nuts, local yogurt, and local raw honey.”
Superfood-focused fast casual Kye’s Montana in Santa Monica, California, doesn’t use any refined sugar in its smoothies, shakes, wraps, sauces, or salads, opting instead for natural sweeteners like dark maple syrup, honey, and agave, which contain minerals and purported health benefits.
“We try to use more natural sources of sweetness. Certain fruits, berries, and dates go a long way in smoothies,” says owner Jeanne Cheng. “We also add a lot of vegetables to our shakes and smoothies—things like Chinese yam that help the gut and balance out the sugars.”
Kye’s draws a mostly health-conscious crowd that includes a lot of paleo consumers. Yet Cheng’s main goal is to promote healthier eating without “shoving it down people’s throats.” She does so by balancing nutrient-dense ingredients with real, flavor-enhancing ingredients like ghee, brown sugar, whole eggs, and coconut oil.
The sweetest savory menu item at Kye’s is the Sweet Chicken “KyeRito,” which contains 11 grams of sugar per serving. It’s not just about the sugar content, but what is consumed alongside it—in this case, broccoli, goji berries, quinoa, and rice, she says.
“With that dish, you have protein to balance out the carbs, so you shouldn’t view it as eating 11 grams of pure sugar,” she says. “That’s the part that people don’t always think about clearly. How you metabolize sugar also depends on what you’re eating it with.”
When you eat dessert, it should taste like dessert
Kye’s vegan brownie is made up of 70 percent black beans, which lend fiber and protein, but it also contains chocolate chips, brown sugar, and Sucanat (whole cane sugar that retains its molasses content).
The restaurant uses brown sugar mainly for texture in its baked goods, but Cheng will typically cut it by half or a quarter, then use Sucanat or maple syrup to bring the sweetness up to a level Cheng thinks diners will enjoy and still feel like they’re getting something that isn’t too sweet.
Soup Peddler emphatically doesn’t skimp on the butter or brown sugar in its desserts—nor do consumers get tiny portion sizes, Ansel says. At the same time, the breakfast bread is largely made up of shredded green apples and carrots, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruit.
Herring says that when it comes to desserts, most consumers want the real thing, and that was evident in the brief life cycle of Jason’s Deli’s sugar-free cheesecake.
“When people go out, unless they have a health problem, they’re not looking for special-diet products,” he says.
That’s largely why Cheng isn’t sold on natural sugar alternatives like xylitol, monk fruit, and stevia, which she says produce off flavors and odd aftertastes.
“Food is one of the main pleasures in life,” she says. “You want to feel good, but have to enjoy it, too.”
This story originally appeared in QSR's August 2016 issue with the title "Not So Sweet."