Fruits and Veggies in a heart shaped bowl

Key Category Insights for National Diabetes Awareness Month

By Jamie Phillips, MS, RDN

November is Diabetes Awareness Month, an opportunity for education and raising awareness around this metabolic disorder that affects over 30 million Americans.1 Here we’ll examine what diabetes is, how it affects the diets of its sufferers, and how relevant retail segments are performing at large.

What is Diabetes?

When we eat, food is broken down into glucose (commonly referred to as blood sugar), the body’s main form of energy. With diabetes, the body cannot regulate blood glucose, causing it to run too high. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, helps blood glucose enter the cells of the body to be used as energy. With diabetes, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin, the body’s cells are resistant to insulin, or a combination of both is taking place. Over time, high blood glucose can damage the body. Complications of prolonged high blood glucose are heart disease, kidney disease, and nerve and eye damage.

Dietary Management of Diabetes

When an individual is diagnosed with diabetes, he or she is often referred to a registered dietitian nutritionist and/or a certified diabetes educator to help devise a meal plan based on his or her health goals. Medical nutrition therapy is aimed at the prevention of diabetes or minimizing the progression and potential chronic complications of diabetes. The goal is to maintain levels of blood glucose at normal or near normal levels through a combination of smart food choices and medicine, as needed. Additionally, for some individuals with diabetes, weight loss may be beneficial to help improve insulin resistance.

Dietary principles for people with diabetes are the same as for anyone else: choosing nutrient-dense foods and beverages and including adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and reduced-fat dairy, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.2 The eating plan should be tailored to the individual’s goals for weight management, metabolic goals (e.g., blood glucose or lipid levels), and blood pressure.3

Quality Carbs

Additionally, meal plans should take into account the type and amount of food consumed, as well as the timing of meals. People with diabetes should focus on both carbohydrate quantity and quality. Health experts recommend that at least half of total grain intake should be from whole grains. To help eliminate consumer confusion, trusted third-party certifications, such as the Whole Grains Council, can help consumers more easily identify whole-grain options in the marketplace. SPINS data shows that the BREAD & BAKED GOODS category is a $28.3 billion market with 1.3% growth.4 The Certified Whole Grains Council subset of this market is $1.6 billion with 0.5% growth.  The BREAD LOAVES subcategory accounts for $1.2 billion in Certified Whole Grains Council sales with 1.1% growth over the prior year, followed by the smaller BAKED GOODS subcategory at just $22.2 million but showing 31.6% growth.

The SHELF STABLE BEANS GRAINS & RICE DRY category is a $1.9 billion category with stagnant growth. Certified Whole Grains Council products in this category are showing declining sales overall; however, SPINS’ Product Type attribute shows certain Certified Whole Grains Council grains, such as Mixed Dry Grains (up 101.1%), Farro (22.6%), and Buckwheat (7.6%) and Kamut (2.4%), are showing growth over the prior year.

In two other popular segments of the store, sales growth for Certified Whole Grains Council products points to more places consumers are choosing whole grains over refined ones. The SHELF STABLE HOT CEREALS category, a $1.46 billion market, is in decline, yet Certified Whole Grains Council products are growing at 2.1% over the prior year, led by Instant Rolled Oats, Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats, Steel Cut Oats, and Non-Instant Buckwheat.


Retreating from Sweet

Another way people with diabetes try to manage total carbohydrate content in their diet is by using alternative natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners. According to the 2017 International Food & Information Council (IFIC) Annual Food & Health Survey,5 76% of consumers are trying to avoid or limit sugar, yet there is confusion over what to use in its place. Half of all consumers surveyed prefer sugar because they believe the alternative is not good for you, but, for people with non-communicable diseases like diabetes, 55% prefer low- and no-calorie sweeteners. Of those consumers who choose low/no calorie sweeteners, approximately 50% do so to help with weight management and calorie consumption, and 63% do so to help lower sugar consumption.

SPINS data shows that the SHELF STABLE SWEETENERS LOW & NO CALORIE subcategory is a $607.4 million market with 2.0% decline from the previous year.4 We are seeing growth in sugar alcohols and sweeteners such as stevia (up 1.2%), stevia blends (up 3.4%), and erythritol (up 82.3%). In addition to purchasing the sweeteners as standalone items, consumers are seeking them out in formulations of other familiar and popular products they purchase. A few growing categories that feature natural and alternative sweetener blends are FROZEN DESSERTS (up 106.1%), SHELF STABLE WATER (up 40.8%) and SHELF STABLE FUNCTIONAL BEVERAGES (up 33.8%). Stevia and Other Alternative Sweetener Blends are growing in FROZEN DESSERTS (up 570.8%), SHELF STABLE COFFEE & TEA RTD (up 77.1%), and SHELF STABLE WELLNESS BARS AND GELS (up 48.6%).

It’s important to note that many of the alternative, natural sweeteners derived from plant sources (as opposed to artificial sweeteners made in a lab) are marketed for their low glycemic index, which may enhance their appeal with some consumers. The American Diabetes Association recommends people with diabetes use carb counting as the first tool to manage blood glucose levels, but using glycemic index may help fine-tune blood glucose management.6 All caloric sweeteners should be used in moderation, especially for people with diabetes.

Supplement Support

Lastly, through the lens of SPINS’ Health Focus attribute, data shows that supplements marketed for blood sugar support are a $150.3 million market, though they are in decline by approximately 10% over the prior year. Looking more closely, we can see there are still a few growing functional ingredients of note in the category: Bitter Melon (up 20.7%), Gymnema Sylvestre (up 6.0%), and Alpha Lipoic Acid (up 3.7%). These three ingredients are purported to offer benefits to people with diabetes, but more research is needed to substantiate these claims. (People with and without diabetes should always consult their physicians before taking supplements.)


Food for Thought

In summary, for people with diabetes, following a healthful diet is critical. Fortunately, there are a wide array of options in the marketplace that allow consumers to make smarter food choices. Retailers can leverage in-store dietitians and pharmacists to point impacted shoppers in the right direction to fill their carts with the right foods. As a dietitian, I know that people with diabetes want to enjoy the same foods they and their families love. Retailers can offer assistance by incorporating more better-for-you alternatives in key categories like BREAD & BAKED GOODS, FROZEN DESSERTS and SHELF-STABLE FUNCTIONAL BEVERAGES. Hopefully, with more choices on the market, diabetic shoppers can still enjoy occasional indulgence as part of their well-designed meal plans.


  1. Statistics About Diabetes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2017 from
  2. Retrieved Nov. 13, 2017 from Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020
  3. American Diabetes Association Releases New Nutritional Guidelines. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2017 from
  4. SPINSscan Natural and Specialty Gourmet (Proprietary), MULO (powered by IRI) 13 Quads Ending 10-Sep-2017.
  5. International Food Information Council 2017 Food & Health Survey. Retrieved Nov. 13, 2017 from
  6. Retrieved Nov. 13, 2017 from