Sugar is caught in a bitter PR storm. With a new guideline from the WHO recommending that we halve our intake of free sugars and national newspapers running headlines such as “sugar is the new tobacco” and “is sugar toxic?”, consumers are becoming increasingly aware that the sweet stuff might be something that’s best limited. A number of authorities, including those in Mexico and the city of Berkley in California, have implemented taxes on soft drinks in an effort to reduce sugar consumption and help curb rising rates of diabetes; a 2015 study published in the scientific journal Circulation estimates that sugary soft drinks kill 184,000 adults every year. Throughout the debate, the food industry has remained resolute, arguing that the scientific evidence is not conclusive and that while the industry is committed to reducing the prevalence of non-communicable disease, food alone is not to blame and that the causes of diet-related diseases are multifactorial. Mars, however, has pulled itself free of this media relations quagmire and recently announced its support for the new recommendation. It seems likely that other companies will soon stop “hiding behind science”, as Mars so boldly put it, and follow suit in an effort to be seen as more reasonable.
Sugar Purchased from Packaged Food and Soft Drinks in Selected Countries Compared to WHO Guidelines
Source: Euromonitor International
The World Health Organisation’s new guideline recommends that adults and children reduce their daily sugar intake to less than 10% of their total energy intake – which for a healthy adult, equates to around 50g. Reducing this further to 5%, or 25g, is thought to provide additional health benefits. Of the 54 countries that Passport Nutrition covers in its research, consumers in 31 of them purchase 50g or more of sugars a day from packaged food and soft drinks in 2014, and 18 of these purchase more than 75g, 50% more than the recommended amount. In the US however, the average consumer purchases 126g of sugars from packaged food and soft drinks a day, with 50g coming from soft drinks alone. It’s important to note that waste is not factored in, so a proportion of what is purchased won’t necessarily be consumed.
Sugar Content and Contribution to Sugar Purchase by Category in the US, 2014
Note: Size of box represents amount of sugar purchased from that category, shade of box represents sugar content per 100g/ml.
While soft drinks contain much less sugar per 100ml compared to other categories, it is by far the largest contributor to sugar purchase in the US at 50g per person per day – consumers buy around 37g from biscuits, cakes, confectionery, ice cream, pastries and sweet and savoury snacks combined. Confectionery represents around 12% of the sugar purchased from all of packaged food and soft drinks in the US, which is higher than the global average of 8%, although in line with the Western European average of 14%. Mars saw global value retail sales of US$25.4 billion in 2014, representing 14% of global confectionery sales in 2015, and making it the largest confectionery company in the world. Moving away from value and looking at the company’s share of the market in nutrition terms, perhaps unsurprisingly Mars is also the largest contributor to calories, sugar and fat purchased from confectionery globally too.
The company is not saying that its products themselves are harmful and is rather saying their consumption should be limited. By endorsing the recommendation, Mars is putting the onus on individual responsibility; while it agrees that a consumer’s intake of sugar should be a maximum of 10% of daily energy requirements, it is up to the individual to choose how they want to fulfil or indeed exceed that 10% - whether it be by consuming Mars products specifically, confectionery in general or other sweet and indulgent foods. Supporting the new sugar recommendation has cost Mars nothing and while this acceptance will be welcome news to public health organisations, it could be interpreted as a little hollow given that the company will not be reformulating its products to contain less sugar. But Mars has already made steps to improve the healthiness of its portfolio and has reduced the size of its confectionery products to contain less than 250 calories a portion, meaning that they will be contributing less towards that magic 10%. It seems likely that more companies will come out in support of the new guidelines to demonstrate they are reasonable and to put them in good stead to be involved in the drawing up of any future regulations, rather than risk exclusion. This could be seen as a tactical retreat by Mars then, rather than any significant victory for public health.