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Perceptions of Sugar Substitutes in Social Media

As one of the most widely used methods of modern communication, social media present new opportunities to understand consumer needs and perceptions quickly and at a low cost.

By ALLIE SIARTO, Co-Founder & Director of Analytics, Loudpixel Inc.

Research will always be a key step in the new product development process, but the way companies are approaching product research is shifting as social media continues to grow. As one of the most widely used methods of modern communication, it presents new opportunities to understand consumer needs and perceptions quickly and at a relatively low cost.

Social media has opened us up to a world of direct and unbiased opinions from our consumers. How do they feel about specific ingredients? What new products or flavors are they asking for? Which demographic groups are talking the most about our product category, and what else do they like? A single tweet may not mean much, but by analyzing overarching trends across thousands of social posts (blogs, comments, forums, Twitter, public Facebook posts, mainstream news, photos and videos), we can gain important insights into consumer perceptions that may drive both the product itself and the way that we market the product after it launches.

This year, Loudpixel analyzed thousands of social media posts related to specific sugar substitutes to get a better idea about how people feel about the taste, health benefits and potential side effects of each. The project started after we were asked repeatedly by our various food clients to explore perceptions and potential pros and cons around substitutes they were considering using in their own products.

So how did each sugar substitute fare in social media? The most widely used sweetener, aspartame, fared the worst, by far, with a score of 91 percent negativity in overall social sentiment. Only 0.3 percent of posts related to aspartame were positive. Stevia fared the best — 67 percent of posts were positive and only 5 percent were negative. These findings alone might suggest that Stevia has a bright future ahead as consumers seek to replace aspartame in their diets with a more natural ingredient that is perceived to have less health-related side effects.

When it comes to taste, sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, erythritol and mannitol come out on top — 83.7 percent of social media posts that mentioned the taste of sugar alcohols were positive, and none were negative (though overall volume of conversations related to taste was the smallest — sugar alcohols made up only 16 percent of taste discussions). Stevia was a close second, with a taste score of 53.7 percent positive and 21.4 percent negative. Perceptions around the taste of sucralose were largely neutral (78 percent), with a taste score of 11 percent positive and 11 percent negative. Once again, aspartame trailed in consumer perceptions. Seventy-five percent of discussions around the taste of aspartame were negative, and there were no positive discussions around its taste.

Other interesting findings from the study included:

  1. Overall, Sucralose led the majority of social conversations (44 percent), followed by aspartame (36.7 percent), Stevia (34.5 percent) and sugar alcohols (8 percent).
  2. Lesser discussed sugar substitutes included saccharin (1.5 percent of social conversations), acesulfame (0.7 percent), neotame (0.1 percent) and cyclamate (0.08 percent).
  3. Nearly 42 percent of people talking about aspartame in social media mentioned negative side effects.
  4. Cancer was the most mentioned perceived side effect of sugar substitutes (20 percent of overall side effect mentions).
  5. 73 percent of social posts that mentioned Stevia in relation to health were positive.
  6. Soda led the aspartame conversation (25.5 percent of conversations), followed by gum (11.6 percent).
  7. Splenda was the most discussed product related to sugar substitutes (35 percent of all social media posts).

Traditional focus groups and research methods certainly still have a place in new product development, but social media may offer a new approach to decrease costs and understand our consumers like never before. Popular networks like Twitter and Facebook have become modern day sounding boards that encourage fast, free-form communication. In addition to the convenience of these platforms, there is an apparent camaraderie between users (as posts are often geared toward peer groups) that likely influences the subject matter and tone of shared commentary. By incorporating social media into ongoing research, we have the opportunity to gain more honest and timely data related to product opinion. This data can shape not only how a brand moves forward, but how it communicates with its consumers on a daily basis.

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