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Sugar tax: what will the industry do next?

The government’s long-awaiting childhood obesity strategy is scheduled for release in March or April. Within it, the answer to the much-debated question: should we introduce a sugar tax in the UK?

The virtues of such a move have been extolled by the anti-sugar lobby. A similar tax in Mexico, they say, has reduced sales of sugary drinks by 12%.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he “wouldn’t rule out” a tax, while a Downing Street spokesperson recently urged the food and drink industry to develop viable alternatives to high sugar products.

In some quarters, decisions are already being taken. Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England has announced a 20% tax on sugary foods and drinks in its cafés by 2020.

The tide appears to be slowly turning. So what does this mean for the food and drink industry?

The Food and Drink Federation says that many companies are already reducing sugar in their products as part of the government’s (now dormant and voluntary) Responsibility Deal. It’s certainly true that many low sugar and no added sugar products have been well established into the marketplace.

The demand for sweeteners is booming as manufacturers seek out the holy grail of calorie-free, ‘natural’ alternatives. Stevia, the latest and trendiest of the bunch, is derived from a herb grown in Brazil and Paraguay. It’s calorie-free and economical –at 200 times sweeter than cane sugar, a little goes a long way.

In addition, many manufacturers are beginning to promote their standard ranges “as part of a balanced diet”. Take a look at Britvic’s website and the first image you see is of a couple of healthy, active looking children taking part in sport, with a bottle of Fruit Shoot in their hands. Fruit Shoot My 5 is marketed as making it “easy to give kids one of their five a day”. Yet one bottle contains 15.4g of sugar. That’s roughly four teaspoons to you and me – just slightly under the total daily amount recommended by the NHS for children under six.

The newest kid on the block in Coca-Cola’s product portfolio is Coke Life. Handily packaged in green to create those subliminal healthy messages, Coke Life is billed as containing 45% less sugar and calories than regular Coke. So far so good, until you work out that’s still 19g, or five teaspoons, of sugar per can.

If measures such as a sugar tax and public education campaigns prevail and we become more and more reluctant to guzzle the sugary stuff, sales may start to falter and what then? Perhaps we should look to the tobacco industry for clues.

A recent study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that from the 1970s, in order to capitalise on emerging Asian markets, tobacco companies tried to reinterpret Islamic teaching to make smoking more acceptable to Muslims. Their tactics included framing Islamic objections to tobacco use as extremism, recruiting Islamic scholars as consultants to ultimately portray smoking as acceptable and hiring lawyers to reinterpret the Qu’ran.

Shocking and unacceptable right?

Last December, anti-obesity group Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) was disbanded after its major funding partner was revealed to be Coca-Cola. Coke had helped to choose senior leaders for GEBN, edited its mission statement and made suggestions about content for its website. An email, sent from GEBN’s president to a Coke executive, said: “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in people’s lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”

Somewhat appropriately, Coke’s latest campaign is called “Choose Happiness”. The question is, just how happy will flooding your body with an overdose of sugar make you?