Around the world, companies are catching on to changing public opinion on sugar, responding to sugar regulation (most notably, labeling and marketing restrictions) and sugar taxes by reformulating their products as lower sugar and, in some cases, as more functional (nutritionally beneficial). Even Odwalla, a brand in the business of making very high-sugar fruit juices and fruits-based smoothies—a local staple in my college days (the company is near my alma mater)—has joined the trend with it’s Zero Sugar juice-infused drinks that use erythritol and stevia as sweeteners. (I look forward to sampling!)
But there are plenty of brands that have not caught on. A WHO briefing from several years ago that looked at sugary products from the supply chain and industry view showed there are more incentives than disincentives for using sugar in manufacturing. Corporate disincentives include the perception that sugar is the best additive for achieving sweetness, that it’s needed for the composition of many foods and is key to consumer choice and brand competitiveness with consumers who prefer ‘natural’ sweeteners over artificial. The briefing found that the low price and abundance of sugar is not a direct incentive but rather it facilitates suppliers’ continued reliance on i
So how can we get more companies to make changes and be ‘first movers’ on their specific products? It seems that where preventive efforts by corporations are lacking, a variety and mix of public-interest-led, targeted and mutually reinforcing approaches may be the best option.
One way is to introduce ‘voluntary targets’ set by countries that companies can adopt. These have been introduced by Germany, Lithuania and (soon) Malta. In Brazil, voluntary reductions are accompanied by banning sugary beverage sales in schools and restricting the marketing of sugary products.
Sugary drinks are often the first targets when it comes to taxes. Mexico, Chile, Barbados, Dominica, Portugal, France, Canada, South Africa, the UK, Ireland and UAE have all implemented a soda tax. The US cities of San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Albany tax sugary drink distributors, as do Philadelphia, Seattle, Boulder, and the Navajo Nation. Washington, DC is considering similar.
Not every company and country follows the same recipe for reducing sugar. Along with a sweet beverage tax, Malaysia’s Healthier Choice Logo helps consumers distinguish between high and low sugar products while companies like Kellogg’s—and countries like Saudi Arabia—seek to implement a “Healthy Food Strategy” through sugar and calorie reduction. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is implementing a label system, and the UK is considering banning junk food advertising at times when kids watch TV.
However, as the WHO report concludes, relying only on “first movers” and the relatively small number of consumers demanding low-sugar products won’t tip the scales. Instead, it suggests that retailers influence brands by stocking only lower-sugar products and changing their own-brand products, complimenting standards and regulations that create a “race to the top.” It also suggests that gradual reductions in sugar across the food industry could help shape consumer taste for lower-sugar foods. However, it reiterates what many of us already know from trying to kick sugar: that consumer demand and taste will change based on the availability, affordability, acceptability and appeal of fresh foods containing no added sugars—as well as anticipating what we can call substitute for sugar.