Soft drinks' journey to lower calories

Published: 05/03/2021

In recent years, the soft drinks industry has intensified its efforts to provide low calorie options to its consumers. Nicholas Hodac, Director General of Soft Drinks Europe, talks us through the journey so far.

Europe’s soft drinks industry is committed to creating healthier and more sustainable drink environments. Many products, like soft drinks, have sugar, and people can continue to consume them as part of a balanced diet. But our industry is also committed to providing products with fewer calories and to ensuring that the healthier choice becomes the easy choice. Our sector has offered products with absolutely no calories or sugar for more than 40 years – since the introduction of the first no- and low-calorie drinks back in the 1970s. With them, we are playing our part in supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goal of improved nutrition and the EU farm-to-fork ambition of making the healthier choice the easy choice.

In recent years our sugar and calorie reduction journey has intensified and the results speak for themselves. Having responded positively to the European Commission initiative to reduce added sugars by 10% between 2015-2020, the soft drinks sector surpassed the target to deliver an average 14.6% added sugar reduction in its drinks across Europe between 2015 and 2019.*  

This was achieved through a comprehensive range of actions including: changing recipes to reduce sugars while maintaining a taste with which consumers are happy; innovating to develop new products with different sweetness levels; increasing availability of small packs to support portion control and moderation; and nudging people towards more no- and low-sugar/calorie options through marketing investments. Building on previous actions this has resulted in an average added sugar reduction of 26% since 2000. Today more than one-quarter of all soft drinks sold in Europe are no- and low-calorie – rising to 40% in some markets.

So how did we get here and what was the impetus for the most recent UNESDA commitments around sugar reduction and consumer choice? 

Well, UNESDA was a founding member of the multi-stakeholder EU Platform for Diet, Physical Activity and Health back in 2005. Members were keen to place their collective focus on voluntary commitments in the area of responsible marketing – especially to children. UNESDA was among the first to make wide-ranging commitments to the Platform – including pledging NO sales in primary schools and NO advertising or marketing to children under 12 years old. Over the years we strengthened and widened our commitments, mindful of consumer expectations and societal trends. The school commitments have been expanded to include NO sales of sugar-sweetened beverages in EU secondary schools, and the advertising commitments reinforced to include digital and social media. 

Our commitments are independently audited by respected organisations, including PwC and GlobalData, and have since inspired numerous similar pledges around the world. They have also been complemented by numerous national pledges – based on local baselines and expectations – that support EU member states in their action plans to create healthier food environments.

UNESDA welcomes the EU farm-to-fork objective of encouraging further reformulation and believes that every sector should be urged to play its part. We are pleased to see that the forthcoming direction of the EU Code of Conduct for responsible business and marketing practices within the strategy builds on our pioneering achievements in this area. The openness of stakeholders to engage through the EU Platform greatly enabled our industry’s progress in sugar and calorie reduction and the EU Code of Conduct offers an opportunity to continue this dialogue with all actors, including Member States. 

Another positive development within the EU Farm to Fork strategy is its goal of an ‘at a glance’, EU-wide, front-of-pack nutrition labelling system. Labelling, together with more innovative ways of providing information to consumers, is an important element in supporting healthier diets and citizens. We believe Europeans would welcome an EU-harmonised, evidence-based, front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme that is meaningful and meets the dietary needs of the entire EU population. A further key tool in sugar reduction – not only in soft drinks, but right across the food industry – are low-calorie sweeteners which have been evaluated as safe by the European Food Safety Authority and authorised by the European Commission.

UNESDA member companies will continue on their sugar reduction journey in the years ahead. They will commit to a range of voluntary actions while also delivering great tasting, alcohol-free drinks that offer people hydration and refreshment – both with and without calories and sugar. 

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