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For the Sake of Public Health, Let’s Not Give Up on Reduced Sugar

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A new study makes the point that reducing sugar intake is valuable in the global battle against obesity. Reduced-sugar packaged foods and drinks, however, are delivering a mixed performance. While reduced-sugar soft drinks have a high penetration in developed markets, they lag behind in emerging economies, and reduced-sugar packaged foods are delivering moderate growth at best. So, where do we go from here?

Sugar reduction a worthwhile public health goal

According to a meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in January 2013, reducing dietary sugar intake to less than 10% of total energy would make a useful contribution to combating the global obesity epidemic. The actual reduction in body weight achieved through this is small – a mere 0.8kg – but, according to the researchers, from a global public health perspective, it is nevertheless significant.

Sugar has long been in the doghouse as a provider of nothing but empty calories, and it is hard to dispute the simple logic of the argument. A glass of water and a glass of a sugary carbonate drink are equally effective at quenching thirst, but while the former has zero calories, the latter provides as much energy as a small meal, but without contributing any vitamins or minerals, nor the feeling of satiety that would have set in if some ‘real food’ had been consumed instead.

Australia’s latest anti-sugar campaign, launched in mid-January 2013 jointly by the Cancer Council, Diabetes Australia and the National Heart Foundation of Australia, aims straight for the jugular with its slogan “You’d never eat 16 packs of sugar. Why would you drink 16 packs?”, referring to the sugar content of the average 600ml sugarised carbonate. To illustrate the point, the campaign’s television advertisements show a young man pouring packets of sugar into his mouth.

Reduced-sugar beverages popular but geographical uptake uneven

Substituting standard carbonates for reduced-sugar versions would be one of the most obvious ways of reducing dietary sugar intake. Globally, reduced-sugar carbonates accounted for 15% of overall carbonate retail volume sales in 2012.  A decade ago, in 2002, it was 12%. The percentage is evidently creeping up although, some might argue, not quickly enough.

In highly developed markets like the United Kingdom and Denmark reduced-sugar carbonates claim around one third of volume sales, while in emerging markets they are still niche products. In China, for instance, they account for less than a 2% share of sales.

Besides reduced-sugar carbonates, which is the most mature BFY (better-for-you) soft drinks category, other types of reduced-sugar beverages are currently enjoying rampant success. Reduced-sugar RTD tea and reduced-sugar juice drinks, for instance, have emerged as the leading growth categories in BFY beverages worldwide, achieving retail value sales gains of 73% and 64%, respectively, over the 2007-2012 review period. Courtesy of stevia-based sweeteners, reduced-calorie juices are booming. In late January 2013, Coca-Cola launched four new Minute Maid products, including Minute Maid Pure Squeezed Light No Pulp Orange Juice and Chilled Light Mango Passion Fruit Drink.

Reduced-sugar packaged foods struggle

Clearly, there is consumer demand for reduced-sugar drinks, but sugary beverages are not the only vehicle of sugar in the diet. In packaged foods, confectionery, sweet snacks and bakery products such as cakes, pastries and biscuits also count as major offenders.

Reduced-sugar packaged food, however, is delivering a far more reticent performance globally. Over the review period not one category managed to achieve a double digit CAGR. Reduced-sugar flavoured milk drinks was the most dynamic with review period CAGRs of 8%. Reduced-sugar ice cream and confectionery posted 6% and reduced-sugar bakery products 4%, within which cakes mustered a paltry 2%.

Reduced-sugar chocolate confectionery remained virtually static, which is no big mystery seeing as chocolate is generally viewed as a pure indulgence product. Reduced-sugar dairy-based yoghurt barely achieving a 1% CAGR, on the other hand, is perhaps more of a surprise, considering that yoghurt attracts health- conscious consumers. It seems that, perhaps, not many of them realise that the ‘healthy’ yoghurt they are rounding off their lunch with is just as sugar laden as any other chilled dessert.

Industry must affirm commitment to reduced sugar

What is the way forward? Public health awareness campaigns like the one currently in progress in Australia and the UK Be Food Smart initiative, which we recently examined, are slowly bringing it home to consumers just how much sugar (as well as fat and salt) is hidden in everyday food and beverage items.

The frequency and spread of these types of campaigns is only set to increase, fuelled by scientific findings like the BMJ study, which show that even a small reduction in body weight is capable of producing a positive public health outcome.

It is clear that reduced-sugar products need more promotion, but the industry finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. In the past, consumers have not been all that enthusiastic about items like low-sugar biscuits and cakes, so manufacturers fear that returns on advertising investment may be disappointing, but if they are not seen to be making an effort to increase mass-market uptake of these products, they are criticised for being too focused on pushing high-sugar fare.

Thanks to innovation and fresh approaches to consumer group targeting, today’s reduced-sugar products are far superior to what was on offer in the past, and consumers need to be enticed to give them another chance. Coke Zero is hugely successful at capturing the previously elusive male target audience, proving that demand is there, especially in beverages. It is feasible that reduced-sugar carbonates could reach 50% of total carbonate volume sales, and care must be taken not to leave emerging markets out of the equation. Obesity is just as much of an issue there as elsewhere.

As unpalatable as the suggestion may sound right now, beverage manufacturers and makers of reduced-sugar packaged foods may eventually have to bite the bullet and offer their reduced-sugar products at cheaper unit prices than their standard offerings to demonstrate that they are serious in their commitment to the public health agenda.

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