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With an eye on health, Wegmans working to cut back on sugar

Grocery shoppers are beginning to sour on sugar – so Wegmans is working to reduce how much of the refined stuff is in its private-label foods.

Wegmans said it is not trying to dictate how people eat. Rather, it is responding to what consumers have already demonstrated they want in the products they buy.

The move also helps the company prepare for new sugar labeling requirements being developed by the Food and Drug Administration.

In April, the FDA proposed updating the nutrition facts labels on processed foods to reflect a product’s added sugar content. Both the American Heart Association and the FDA have presented research showing a link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.

In 2006, after finding a link between coronary heart disease and trans fats, the FDA similarly required foodmakers to label the amount of trans fat in its products. That heightened consumer awareness influenced shoppers’ choices, which in turn led many companies to reduce their use of trans fats or cut them out completely.

When it comes to refined sugar, consumers are already headed in that direction. As the adverse health effects of too much refined sugar become more widely known – links to weight gain, diabetes, digestive problems, even cancer – shoppers have been trending away from products with too much added sugar.

The beverage industry has seen a drastic drop in carbonated soft drinks over the years, as consumers have migrated away from them in favor of bottled water and ready-to-drink teas. In 2005, sales of carbonated soft drinks stopped growing and have declined ever since.

Those losses set drink makers scrambling to switch up their portfolios, looking to add bottled water, sports drinks with natural sweeteners like Stevia, as well as mid-calorie drinks that have a blend of sugar and natural sweeteners, such as Coca-Cola Life and Pepsi True, according to John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.

“There’s a concern among consumers about obesity, health and wellness,” he said.

But cutting sugar by adding artificial sweeteners like aspartame is not the answer either, according to Sicher. Diet drinks and products with artificial sweeteners have declined even further than high-sugar drinks due to consumer health concerns.

Wegmans said it would not use artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup to replace its reduced sugar content. Instead, it said it would work to make products healthier overall while making sure they still taste good.

“We’re looking for where we can reduce a gram or two of sugar here and there,” said Jane Andrews, a registered dietitian and Wegmans’ nutrition and label manager. “It’s not about taking all the sugar out of all the food.”

In fact, some added sugar can actually motivate people to eat better by making healthier foods more palatable. Some hearty whole wheat breads, for example, can taste bitter on their own. Adding a little bit of sugar can make whole wheat bread taste better, making it easier for a consumer to choose it over less nutritious white breads, Andrews said.

Wegmans is not looking to cut back on natural sugars either, such as those naturally occurring in milk or fruit.

In fact, the company is looking at ways it might use fruit and vegetable extracts to more healthfully add sweetness to its processed foods.

The company is also keeping its hands off the bakery items, such as cookies and cakes. Instead, the company is looking at possibly shrinking portion sizes in things like muffins and pastries to make them more healthy.

“Customers want that indulgence. If you take sugar out, it won’t taste the same and there will be a backlash,” Andrews said.