For years Big Food lured consumers to its processed and packaged products with an irresistible combination of sugar, fat, and salt.
Now it seems at least some of those consumer packaged giants are reversing course. A new study released by the Consumer Goods Forum found that the 102 companies it surveyed ranging from Walmart (WMT) to Nestle reformulated more than 180,000 of their products to “support healthier diets and lifestyles and address public health priorities.” That’s an increase from just 84,000 products in 2015 and 22,500 in 2014.
The number one ingredient the companies—representing some $1.8 trillion in 2015 revenue—were looking to remove was sugar. Sodium came in second, followed by trans fats and saturated fats. Whole grains and vitamins were the top two elements companies added to recipes.
Sugar has long been on its way to becoming public enemy No. 1. Research firm NPD Group has found that sugar is the main substance that consumers are now trying to eliminate from their diets. As David Turner, a global food and drink analyst at market research firm Mintel, recently told Fortune, “Sugar is the new tobacco” in the minds of the public. (For more, read “The Hunt for the Perfect Sugar.”)
Despite the reduction that the survey indicates, sugar is still pervasive in packaged foods and beverages. Some 74% of them contain some form of sweetener, according to a recent study in The Lancet. Robert Lustig, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine and a leading critical voice on the topic, has explained that companies “use hedonic substances, and sugar is the most ubiquitous hedonic substance.”
The problem for Big Food companies is that the alternatives they have long turned to—artificial sweeteners—are also becoming unpalatable to their customers. According to Mintel, 39% of consumers think it’s best to avoid products containing artificial ingredients like aspartame and saccharin because of perceptions of health risks. Sales of such substitutes fell 13% between 2011 and 2016.
That’s led to a rush to find the perfect substitute to sugar—one that’s natural, zero-calorie, and tastes just like the real stuff. Nestlé, for example, is trying to change sugar’s structure by essentially hollowing it out. As I wrote last month:
Stefan Catsicas, the company’s head of innovation, describes a sugar crystal as being like a box. We taste only the outside of it in our mouths, but we swallow the contents of the entire thing even though the sugar on the inside is not essential to the sense in our mouth. “We can structure it so whatever we put on the tongue will be perceived and will represent most of what we swallow,” Catsicas says. This could potentially cut down on sugar by up to 40%.
The problem? The structure is destroyed in water, which is present in most foods. Luckily for Nestlé, chocolate is one of the only foods that are not aqueous. Meanwhile, a cottage industry of startups has developed to try to solve the sugar problem, either by searching for the perfect natural substitute or by messing with our taste receptors.