The Trek to a Yogurt Less Sweet
Joshua Bright for The New York Times
Thierry Saint-Denis, the director of research and development at Dannon, managed to reduce sugar by 25 percent in in Danimals Smoothies.
By STEPHANIE STROM
Dannon yogurt had a secret it didn’t want you to know. Until recently.
Its Danimals Smoothies, a line of yogurt drinks in Technicolor packaging for the pint-size set, have gotten a little bit healthier. Since February, Dannon has been selling the smoothies with 25 percent less sugar. And hardly anyone seems to have noticed — just as Dannon had hoped.
Deciding not to trumpet a healthier-for-you move might be puzzling at first, until you consider this: “One thing I have learned is that the main driver of yogurt sales above all is taste,” said Sergio Fuster, senior vice president for marketing at Dannon. “You do not want to send any signal to the consumer that might lead her to believe the taste has changed because she will simply pick up another yogurt — and it may not be ours.”
The margin for error in the realm of taste is small. A mistake could be financially deadly.
Yogurt sales are among the fastest-growing of all food products as a wave of new brands challenges the shelf space allotted to more traditional ones like Dannon, Yoplait and Stonyfield. And Chobani, which is posting sales of more than $1 billion less than 10 years after it was founded, and the other upstarts are aggressively promoting their products for children.
Dannon clearly regards its decision to make such a big reduction in the product’s sugar content — to 10 grams, from 14 — as a way to get ahead in the game. The only indication is in the fine print on the nutrition label, which shows its sugar content is slightly lower than for similar products by its competitors.
“Kids are not into nutrition profiles, but moms are,” Mr. Fuster said. “We want to shift the discussion away from the quantity of calories, although they are impacted with this change, to talking about the quality of the calories in yogurt, like how much protein it delivers.”
Kathleen M. Zelman, a registered dietitian who is director of nutrition for WebMD, took a look at the nutrition labels for the product before and after sugar was cut and said it was a step in the right direction, though she wished it delivered more protein.
“There’s no nutritional payback from sugar, so any time you can cut it and still enjoy nutritional goodness like that found in yogurt, I’m thrilled,” Ms. Zelman said. “There’s a lot of pressure on sugar these days because of the obesity trends, not that I’m saying it’s the culprit, but we eat too many calories in general and it’s easy to overconsume sugar calories.”
Dannon has reduced sugar in a handful of products before, but never by more than 5 to 10 percent. Reductions of that size merely require subtracting sweetener in small amounts.
But when the company was looking for ways to underscore its commitment to enhancing the healthiness of its products, it decided it needed to do something more dramatic. “We set a target of 25 percent, even though a lot of people said that was too much,” said Thierry Saint-Denis, director of research and development at Dannon.
Reducing sugar by 5 percent is relatively simple, Mr. Saint-Denis said, because milk and other components in yogurt can mask the missing sweetness. Such a change has little impact on yogurt’s viscosity and other characteristics.
But eliminating one-quarter of the sweeteners has much bigger consequences, wreaking havoc not only on taste but on texture, acidity and other aspects. “We decided to do it because it would force us to do something we had never done if we were to meet that target,” Mr. Saint-Denis said.
To explain the complex science of ingredient mix, Mr. Saint-Denis did a little demonstration at the company’s American headquarters in White Plains, involving cups of two different unsweetened yogurts and big syringes filled with liquid sweetener. At the start, one yogurt was tart and acidic, the other more bland — and it quickly became clear that it would take markedly less sugar syrup to arrive at a sweet taste with the bland flavor than with the tart and acidic one. So one crucial factor to less sugar is lower acidity.