Reformulating a healthier drinks environment

Published: 09/03/2022

Today’s consumers are more health-conscious than ever before when they choose the food and drinks they want to consume. As part of our #FoodFuture campaign, we spoke to Nicholas Hodac from Soft Drinks Europe to walk us through the soft drinks industry’s long track record of reducing sugars.

Consumers increasingly look for products with nutritious benefits, less calories and less sugar that, nonetheless, provide pleasure. The trend towards healthier food and drink choices, including for soft drinks, has also been accentuated by wider societal health concerns. It has become clear that healthier diets are closely associated with healthier lifestyles.

Making healthier diets the easy choice is a central goal of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and, as an integral part of its action plan, of the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices. This is an ambitious objective that we at UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, representing Europe’s soft drinks sector, fully support and are committed to attain. A key factor on the path towards this change is to step up our efforts to reformulate or, simply put, to reduce sugar in our drinks. Educating and encouraging consumers towards healthier food and drink options is a core and fundamental part of the work that we do.

A long and successful track record of reducing sugar

Europe’s soft drink sector has been a longstanding supporter of healthier lifestyles with its pioneering reformulation efforts to offer products with no calories or sugar since the 1970s.

Since then, we have put reformulation at the center of our customer-centric business, based on the vast experience we have gained along the way in gauging consumer acceptance of new tastes and identifying technological barriers that can impact reformulation ambitions. All of this has been guided by our key priority of assuring product safety and integrity all the time.

Over the last 50 years or so, we have taken numerous actions to reduce sugar in our beverages, from changing recipes to reduce sugars in our drinks whilst maintaining great taste, to further innovating by  developing new no- or low- calorie products with different sweetness levels. We have also increased the availability and range of small packs to facilitate moderate consumption through portion control and intensified our efforts to promote no- and low-sugar/calorie beverages to actively encourage consumer choice towards these products.

These accelerated voluntary actions have allowed us to take our reformulation journey to new heights: we reached a 13.3% reduction in average sugars between 2000 and 2015, and we take pride in continuing to be the only sector to have responded to the EU call for a 10% added sugars reduction by 2020 by achieving a 14.6% reduction in average sugars between 2015 and 2019, well ahead of time. We have achieved over 25% market share with no- and low calorie products in Europe, with some markets as high as 40-50%. This is a gradual process that shows that reformulation and consumer acceptance go hand in hand, so that consumers continue to join us on our reformulation journey and that cultural differences in tastes will be taken into consideration.

Taking on a new commitment to push forward on reducing sugar

UNESDA’s unwavering commitment to promote healthier drink habits is reflected in the fact that we announced in June 2021, as part of the EU Code of Conduct, a new pledge to reduce sugar in our drinks by another 10% by 2025 in the EU27 and the UK. This will represent an impressive overall reduction of 33% in average added sugars over the past two decades.

Setting a good example at EU level trickles down to the national level

Good practices have the power to be replicated anywhere else, as is the case with UNESDA’s sugar reduction commitments at European level. Similar pledges at national level around Europe, led by UNESDA’s national member associations, have been made. Some examples include:

  • Belgium: After achieving a 25% reduction in sugar between 2012 and 2020, the soft drinks sector in Belgium has pledged to reduce added sugars by a further 7% by 2025.
  • Italy: The Italian soft drink sector has committed to a further 10% reduction in sugar by 2022. This comes on top of a 27% sugar reduction between 2009 and 2019.
  • Netherlands: The Dutch Association of Soft Drinks, Waters & Juices announced in 2020 that the industry had reached a 26.7% sugar reduction compared to 2012, surpassing its own 25% target. The sector is now committed to delivering a total 30% sugar reduction by 2025 compared to 2012.
  • Spain: The soft drinks sector in Spain reduced overall sugar content by 39% between 2005 and 2019. The industry went even further by committing to reduce average sugar content in all soft drinks by an additional 10% between 2017 and 2020, significantly exceeding its own target with the achievement of a 23% reduction by 2020. In 2019, no- and low-calorie soft drinks represented 34% of the total market of soft drinks in Spain.
  • Sweden: Following a 10% sugar reduction achieved between 2015 and 2018, ahead of the 2020 deadline, the Swedish soft drinks sector aims to deliver an additional 15% reduction in sugar by 2025.

What the data tells us – obesity rates will not decrease by only targeting soft drinks

Recent data shows overweight and obesity rates are not reducing. When we look at WHO Europe Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Surveys, we see that there has been a significant reduction in frequency of soft drinks consumption by children across all age groups. Between 2001 and 2018, the proportion of EU 11-year-olds who drank soft drinks daily decreased by 46%. In the same period, a 43% decrease in the number of EU 13-year-olds and 15-year-olds who consumed soft drinks every day was also reported.

Similarly, various national dietary intake data indicate considerable decreasing consumption rates of soft drinks containing added sugars by children in some markets, with Ireland and Spain reporting a decrease by 80% between 2003 and 2018 and by 40% between 1998 and 2012, respectively.

The other relevant fact that available data in Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and Slovenia indicates is that sugar-sweetened soft drinks are not the main contributor to the total sugars intake in these countries, with confectionery and dairy products ranking higher on the list.

All this demonstrates that obesity is a complex multifactorial issue requiring both a holistic approach and a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach among European and national authorities, industry, the healthcare community and civil society to foster collective action to help consumers reduce their levels of added sugar intake.

It also shows how critical it is for EU decision-makers to consider all sources of added sugars, not only sugar-sweetened beverages, as well as different dietary patterns and habits in each country, when designing policy interventions.

The EU supportive measures that can make further sugar reduction efforts work

While we are doing our part, it is key that EU authorities, national governments and other sectors provide policy cohesion and an enabling framework to scale up initiatives that will promote a healthier way of eating and drinking.

Low-calorie sweeteners, evaluated as safe by the European Food Safety Authority and authorised by the European Commission, are a key tool to enable us in reducing the sugar intake from our drinks while allowing consumers to enjoy the same level of sweetness. Consequently, European and national authorities need to continue to promote the safety and benefits of low-calorie sweeteners to enhance consumer confidence.

Considering voluntary approaches to sugar reduction, such as reformulation and portion size control, as an efficient alternative to regulation is also fundamental.

Improving the collection of up-to-date dietary data across Europe is of equally high importance to provide an accurate science-based analysis of what policy interventions are needed to address the rise in obesity and overweight.

As drink manufacturers, we have also helped consumers make well-informed choices by providing easy-to-understand front-of-pack nutritional information on the composition of our drinks for many years. To continue to display clear and transparent nutritional information that is aligned with existing EU legislation, such as the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation, we need EU and national regulators to ensure that any EU-wide front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme is informative and meaningful to consumers, helping them to choose lower sugar/calorie options, and also incentivises producers to reformulate.

For more information, visit the UNESDA page on sugar reduction.