Could rising sugar prices be good for our health?

When it comes to ethics in the food & drink business, obesity is top of the agenda. But despite our ever rising obesity levels in the UK many food brands have done little to really tackle the issue. However, it seems economics is doing the work instead.

As sugar prices rise, they have almost doubled since 2010, food and drink brands are looking to alternatives, mainly artificial sweeteners like Tate & Lyles super sweet ‘Sucralose’ (E955) or Ajinomoto’s ‘Aspartame’ (E951).

Other artificial sweeteners used in soft and sports drinks include ‘Splenda’, ‘Ace-K’, ‘Erythritoll’ and ‘Acesulfame Potassium’, but sugar still remains the number one sweetener.

The UK is one of the biggest users already of artificial sweeteners because of the high cost of sugar imports, yet many brands don’t use this factor to push a healthier message. According to Mintel, a third of low calorie drinks launched since 2010 don’t carry a diet drink claim. In the current climate this can only be a missed marketing opportunity.

Britvic brand SoBe V-Water has opted for ‘Stevia’, a natural South American herbal sweetener (a member of the sunflower family) and not before time as it has been heavily criticised for its sugar content.

Stevia, due to its steviol glycoside extracts, is about 40 times sweeter than sugar so has allowed SoBe to dramatically reduce calories.  It is more commonly used in the US and it’s probably only a matter of time before Coca-Cola introduces it into UK lines like Fanta (targeted at kids) – they already use it in France in their Fanta Still product.

Of course the drink that goes down in history for sugar deception is Sunny D. Originally marketed in a way to make it look like it was a natural orange drink (it was even sold in the chiller cabinet) it was a big hit with kids. But when consumers found out it was nothing more than coloured sugar water (with just 5% juice) millions was wiped off of the brand’s profits and value.

I remember sitting in a meeting when I was a CD at Saatchi’s with a P&G marketing manager discussing a relaunch brief for Sunny D. It was a hopeless mission and one that failed. I suggested they bin the brand and launch a new one built around honesty and health, which was meet with puzzled faces. “But we’ve invested millions into it,” he commented. “Yes you have,” I replied,” millions in deceiving mums when you could have invested in a decent product in the first place. But now you’ve lost their trust you can’t buy it back, no matter how deep your pockets.” It was a lost argument when you are talking to someone trained just in ‘Profit & Gain’.

In Australia research has linked the consumption of sugary soft drinks with an increase in child heart disease, not to mention the common problems of rotten teeth and over weight. Kids as young as 12 are showing early signs of heart problems has shocked Aussie mums.

Despite their benefits, artificial and natural sweeteners can be controversial with some parties questioning their side effects. In the US, due to actions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and following the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, Stevia can only be sold legally in the United States as a “dietary supplement.” At one time it was banned.

The big question you have to ask is, when there are so many low calorie alternatives why do drink brands still fill their bottles with up to 6 spoonfuls of sugar? Probably comes down to the sweet taste of fat profits.

Sugar in drinks facts: