BY EMILIE ODIN
There was one particular topic on everyone’s agenda at this year’s UK Soft Drinks Conference: the debate around sugar and sugar content in soft drinks. A vote in the room showed that 90% of voters think that questions surrounding health make up the biggest industry issue to be addressed, far ahead of sustainability issues, which received 6% of votes.
The second session of the day, titled Strategy for Health, was opened by Prof Graham McGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, who took to the stage to explain why he is adamant that the recent announcement of the government’s plans to introduce a levy on soft drinks containing sugar is positive news for public health. McGregor was followed by Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, who, having first highlighted his great respect for Graham McGregor’s tenacity, energy and total belief in his own case, began his presentation by stating that he disagrees with everything put forward by Prof McGregor.
So what were the opposing arguments? Well, in essence, the two opposing views weren’t actually all too different. Prof McGregor’s argument is that the food industry must act and do something as they are partly responsible for the obesity problem in this country. However, as he continued: “It’s all very well attacking the industry, but ideally we need incremental reformulation.”
Action on Sugar’s Prof Graham MacGregor argued for “incremental reformulation”
During his presentation, he described successful industry efforts to gradually reformulate and, thus, reduce salt content in various products such as cornflakes, where, over the years, the product has been reformulated to contain 40% less salt than it used to without consumers noticing. Central to Ian Wright’s argument is also the importance of collaboration in the industry, with Wright stating that “it is important that the industry sticks together and that everyone works together. It is crucial that the industry does so because an attack on one is eventually going to be an attack on all”.
But why soft drinks? This is where arguments clashed. Prof McGregor’s reason for the soft drinks industry being the sole “victim” of the sugar tax is that it is an “easy” place to launch an effort, but also because soft drinks contain no other nutrients vital to us in the way that, for example, fruit juices or smoothies offer vitamins or milk-based drinks offer calcium and protein. In addition to sugar reduction, McGregor also calls for a reduction in artificial sweeteners in order for consumers’ palates to adapt to lower levels of sweetness in drinks. According to McGregor, a gradual reformulation with a 10% annual reduction of sugar, eventually leading to a projected 50% reduction in five years, would prevent approximately 1.5 million cases of obesity and significantly contribute to a reduction in cases of diabetes. At the end of his presentation, having argued for the sugar tax, Prof McGregor asked the audience the following question: “Will David Cameron have the guts to see through the sugar levy?”
Food and Drink Federation director general Ian Wright
Whereas Prof McGregor is strongly in favour of the sugar tax, Ian Wright followed McGregor’s presentation to point out that the facts are that “there is no evidence to show that additional taxes on single ingredients or products make any sustained difference to obesity” and tackling obesity levels. In addition to this, he referenced research done by McKinsey that ranked sixteen ways to tackle obesity in terms of their effectiveness, where the 10% tax on products high in sugar came out as one of the least effective methods, with portion control and reformulation being the long-term sustainable way to attack the problem.
So what is the solution? Prof Graham McGregor, Ian Wright and Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association and also opposed to the sugar tax, all agreed that, first and foremost, the industry needs to act collectively and collaboratively to address health issues facing the British public and that gradual reformulation of soft drinks is a long-term goal. Partington, who offered a presentation explaining the proposed tax, who will be affected and who will be exempt, as well as the general terms and, as he pointed out, non-negotiable structure of the legislation, also made the point that sales of soft drinks in Mexico, where a similar tax was recently introduced, are climbing again, making the tax a short-term influencer on the public’s sugar consumption.
Following a debate on stage, the people in the room voted on what they thought would be the most contributing factor to achieving sustained health benefits. And the result: reformulation and consumer education – ahead of the sugar tax.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020