Reducing sugar without compromising on fun

The relationship between alcohol and health has always been a difficult one, and it’s no different when it comes to sugar content in alcoholic beverages and soft drinks. Today, the vast majority of mixer companies are now offering light and low calorie expressions of their tonics and gingers, as they look to counteract the public’s opinion against sugar.

But there’s one alcoholic drink that has seen its stock rise thanks to all the sugar shaming – and that’s the vodka & soda. It’s a serve that has grown dramatically over recent years, particularly amongst women who see it as the least harmful manifestation of a long ‘proper’ mixed drink. It became popular back in the early days of vodka’s success, and evidence suggests it will continue to gather momentum as consumers increasingly look for ways to reduce their sugar intake without compromising on fun ‘too much’.

And unsurprisingly there have been numerous drinks businesses piggybacking the trend, each launching their own interpretations of pre-mixed alcoholic sodas and seltzers. These ‘hard’ brands have been born as a direct result of the vodka & soda explosion.

Mike Spurling, managing partner at Barfly

Progress is promising but there is still much to be done

Whilst we welcome PHE’s first assessment of progress on the government’s sugar reduction programme, it’s evident that much more must be done to ensure that the 20% sugar reduction target is met.

So far the sugar tax, which strongly supports the implementation of reformulation, has resulted in over 50% of manufacturers reducing the sugar content of drinks since it was announced in March 2016 – the equivalent of 45 million kg of sugar every year. However, some companies have not reformulated and the tax must now be escalated on these drinks as has occurred incrementally for the tobacco tax. The current threshold of 5g and 8g per 100ml should be slowly reduced and the amount of levy paid slowly escalated. High sugar milkshakes should also be brought into the levy along with fruit juices, if not reformulated, or if portion sizes are not reduced by 2022.

Energy drinks consumption in the UK is also a growing problem, particularly among children and teenagers. In 2011, a study by the European Food Safety Authority found young people in the UK consumed more energy drinks than in other EU countries and market research data suggest a rise children aged 10–14 years consuming energy drinks. Energy drinks contain staggering levels of sugar and caffeine which are associated with chronic sleep loss, addiction/dependence, withdrawal and intoxication.

Many supermarkets have banned the sale of energy drinks to under 16 year olds but this has not been supported by similar action by convenience stores, which sell a large volume of energy drinks to under 16 year olds. To create a level-playing field it is vital that government bans the sale of energy drinks to under-16 year olds from all outlets.

Ms Kawther Hashem, nutritionist, Action on Sugar

Placing consumer choice at the forefront

Belvoir has been producing premium adult soft drinks for over 30 years and throughout that time, we have placed consumer choice at the forefront of our business ethos.  Today, despite challenges including the introduction of the sugar tax, we’re proud to have maintained consumer choice as our fundamental strategy and in many ways, the sugar levy may help us to highlight this.

For many brands the tax has resulted in the reformulation of their drinks, often opting to swap sugar for artificial sweeteners.  At Belvoir we know that sugar improves the taste profile and holds the flavour – we are not prepared to compromise on taste or quality and so we will never use artificial sweeteners in our drinks.  However, despite this, we recognise that generally palates are getting less sweet and we need to appreciate this and lower the sugar levels in our drinks. So, we have looked at our Belvoir range and where possible reformulated our drinks to acknowledge and tap into this trend, by reducing sugar levels, while not compromising on the taste that our loyal consumers love and expect from the brand.  As a result, we believe that we have the best range to offer genuine consumer choice:

For those consumers who want to reduce sugar in their diets, motivated by health and wellbeing, or simply as a palate preference, we have our ‘Lights’ range which contain 30% less sugar than our standard products.  These are all at the less than 5g/100ml of sugar and below the levy rate

For those just looking for a treat our standard range of Cordials and Pressés offer a choice of inspiring and delicious flavour combinations. Some of these have been reformulated using the same high-quality ingredients, just with lower sugar content.  This has only happened if the taste is genuinely uncompromised, so inevitably some products have been left alone.  Our traditional Pressés come in between the 5g-8g/100ml levy rate and our traditional Cordials come in below the threshold

For those for whom Organic is a priority we have organic versions of our best-selling Cordials and Pressés.  As truly indulgent products, these come in at over the 8g/100ml levy rate

Therefore, the majority of Belvoir’s products sit under the 8g levy rate which is obviously good for our customers.  At the same time, we have empowered the consumer to make their own decision on the level of sugar they want in their drink while guaranteeing in all our products a delicious, hand crafted drink, full of honest, real ingredients and no artificial sweeteners.  For Belvoir, choice is king!

Pev Manners, managing director, Belvoir Fruit Farms

European consumers are already looking for alternatives

Long ago we started developing lower sugar alternatives. Because we’re represented in a few markets in Europe, the UK sugar tax was similar to those found in surrounding countries. What concerned us was at sampling events in the UK, we received comments on the sugar level being high from the public. We started exploring alternatives and learned more about lowering sugar levels. After a long search, we started a new formulation using agave which provided the same taste but with less sugar content. We were able to source organic, fair trade agave nectar, which made it all possible.

Frederik Senger, CEO, Little Miracles

Brands need to be good food stewards for increasingly aware consumers

People have a natural appetite for sugar as it has been hardwired into their brains from back when humans needed to detect ripened fruit as we forged for food in the wild. But in our current food system, sugar has become nearly ubiquitous because of its low cost and addictive proportion. Now, consumers have become increasingly aware about what they are eating, and their attitudes and behaviours are shifting.

People are looking at nutrition and ingredient labels, brands increasingly need to be good food stewards that not only deliver on these demands for lower sugar but exceed them. Long before processed sugar became one of the top ingredients consumers avoid, Califia Farms focused on delivery low-to-no-sugar plant-based beverages. We’ve reduced sugar by 40% since 2015 by offering new unsweetened options and lowering the sugar in existing Califia products- while continually innovating on great taste.

Greg Steltenpohl, CEO and founder, Califia Farms

Hurried and lacking consultation: The industry may not be reacting as effectively as it could

The drinks industry has had to adjust to taxation that in policy and execution was hurried, lacked consultation and perhaps will not deliver as effectively as it could to the goal of reducing childhood obesity. I’ve always favoured a minimum pricing model linked with education around calorie consumption and awareness of calorie sources for children and adults.  Cheap two litre bottles of soft drinks have not disappeared and service stations, more often than not, offer carbonated drinks at the same price or cheaper than bottled water.  I profoundly dislike the drive to replace sugar in whole or part with artificial sweeteners, it’s created some very unpleasant beverages I would not want my kids to drink.  Everything in moderation and balance I say, and that includes sugar.

William Fugard, CEO, Gusto Organic