Just a few short years ago, sugar growers and packagers had to have felt pretty good. Thanks to a rash of suspect epidemiological claims about high-fructose corn syrup, and then marketing claims and labels touting a lack of HFCS (even pancake syrup, made of corn syrup, got labels saying it was not HFCS), they had to feel good about the future.

No more. The low-fat, low-calorie, gluten-free diet craze has also clearly turned on sugar, if New York Times stories are the barometer for that demographic. And it is.

Look for new labels as marketers scramble to keep up, because more than 50 percent of consumers are interested in products with reduced levels of sugar,  according to a June 23 panel discussion at the 2014 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting&Food Expo® in New Orleans.

It's difficult keeping up with the latest trends. What will be the next miracle vegetable? What product is killing us now? Photo: Isabelle Mansuy / UZH / ETH Zurich

They are clearly being educated by advertising. 50 percent of people want low sugar, 25 percent claim to be dieting and 70 percent say they want to lose weight.  Meanwhile, labels talk about low-carb, gluten-free and low-fat. The obvious solution for people who don't want to diet but do want to lose weight is fewer calories. That's bad for the sugar industry.

"And yet in the U.S. market, it's all about low- or no-fat claims," said Lynn Dornblaser, director, innovation & insight, Mintel Group, Ltd. "Products that make a low-sugar, low-calorie or low-sodium claim are less prevalent." 

However, they say U.S. food products are lowering salt and sugar levels. In fact, many common products have been "quietly and slowly" reducing sugar and salt levels, knowing that consumers are looking at this information in nutritional labeling. 

As "most consumers know that less sodium means less taste," many products are promoting low- or less-sodium, "but also good taste," said Dornblaser. She highlighted products that tout "less salt, more herbs," or "much less sodium, much more flavor."

The discussion evolved around trends:

Consumers consistently rank taste as the most important food attribute (88 percent), followed by appetite satisfaction or satiety (87 percent), and value (86 percent).

Food that was grown or made locally was important to just 36 percent of consumers.

"Artisan" food, a relatively undefined term to reflect non-processed food, or food made by hand or by a small firm, was deemed important by 36 percent of consumers.

33 percent of consumers stated that "organic" was an important food attribute.

The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines are expected to again recommend lower levels of sugar and salt in food products, said Joanne L. Slavin, professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She also anticipates continued "movement toward whole foods and away from nutrients," and reference to trending topics "such as sustainability, gluten, vegan diets and food processing."

"Consumers look to flavor first, health attributes second," said Dornblaser. "Any (food producer) has to keep that in mind. Consumers aren't afraid of sugar or salt, they're afraid of too much sugar or salt. The way to do that overtly and covertly is reduce when you can. Consumers do look at the nutrition statement."