Did you know more than half of consumers check the sugar content of foods before buying them? A recent report revealed just how concerned we are about the white stuff and the UK government is responding by introducing a sugary drinks tax in April 2018. What it will the sugar tax mean for food producers and what are the options?
What is the sugar tax?
The Soft Drinks Levy – better known as the sugar tax or soda tax – is designed to reduce the consumption of drinks with added sugar such as carbonated soft drinks, sports and energy drinks. In the UK, the levy will apply to drinks with added sugar at a total sugar content of five grams or more per 100 millilitres (around 5% sugar content). There is a higher charge for the drinks that contain eight grams or more per 100 millilitres.
Why has it been introduced?
Unlike sugar from food, the sugar in drinks enters the body more rapidly, which can overload the pancreas and liver. Although one sugary drink has minimal effects, regular consumption contributes to many major health concerns such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In 2015 Jamie Oliver imposed his own ‘sugar tax’ of 10p to each sugary soft drink sold at his Jamie’s Italian restaurants. The research, published in the BMJ Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that, after 12 weeks, there had been an 11% decline in sales of sugary drinks per customer.
According to Public Health England’s (PHE) evidence review, children and teenagers are consuming three times the recommended level of sugar, while adults consume more than double. Almost two-thirds of England’s adults are overweight or obese while a tenth of 4-5 year olds and almost a fifth of 10-11 year olds are obese. The review outlined that if we could drop our sugar intake to recommended levels within 10 years, we could avoid over 4,000 early deaths and over 200,000 cases of tooth decay.
Sugar tax around the world
A number of other countries have effectively rolled out sugar taxes, including France, Hungary and South Africa. Mexico introduced a 10% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in 2014 and sales fell by 12% in the first year. While the US doesn’t have a nationwide soda tax, a few of its cities have passed their own. Berkeley and Philadelphia have both seen a significant decline in consumption.
Reformulation and alternatives
The UK government issued a press release earlier this year that outlined the three approaches the food industry can take to reduce sugar.
- Shift consumer purchasing towards lower or no added sugar products (removing sugar)
- Reduce the portion size, and/or the number of calories in single-serve products
- Reformulate products to lower the levels of sugar present
The challenge in removing sugar isn’t just a question of taste; sugar plays an integral role in the quality and stability of soft drinks. Sugars are also bulking agents, which give texture, and without sugars the soft drink will lack body and feel flat in the mouth. Additionally, sugars can act as preservatives and, therefore, prolong product shelf-life. Sugar also gives a certain viscosity and influences colour.
Reducing sugar content
A gradual reduction allows the consumer to become accustomed to a new taste. This is how Heinz reduced the salt content in baked beans for example.
Replacing or reformulating sugar
According to reports, consumers are actively avoiding artificial sweeteners. When it comes to paying more for healthier options, natural is key: 50% of consumers say they are willing to pay more for products that claim “only natural sweeteners” are used, and 45% are willing to pay more for “no artificial sweeteners.”
What do we recommend?
We are already helping food producers look at alternative recipes to maximise the natural and sugar-free claims for their products.
- natural sweeteners such as stevia
- different types of sugar – fruit juice, for example
- enhancers that increase the sweetness of the sweeteners that are present (so you can have less of them)
Alternatives to processed sugar
Honey contains 80% natural sugars, 18% water and 2% minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein. Fructose and glucose make up 70% of honey’s natural sugar content. Honey is also an ancient natural remedy because of its antibacterial properties.
Xylitol is the alcohol form of xylose and is naturally produced by most living things including trees, fruits, plants and animals. It has 40% fewer calories than sugar, 75% fewer carbohydrates and is low GI. It can also inhibit the bacteria that cause tooth decay.
Fruit contains fructose along with fibre, vitamins and minerals. Pureed fruit can be added to sweeten a product and fruit peel is full of antioxidants.
A form of glucose, dextrose can be bought in liquid or powder form and is viewed as the “good” part of sugar. Due to its high GI rating athletes use it post-exercise to boost energy levels in muscle.
Stevia is a natural sweetener made from the stevia plant native to Paraguay. It is 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose, and also comes in liquid or powder form. With no calories, carbs and a GI of zero, it’s popular with dieters.
Coconut palm sugar
Produced from the sap of the coconut palm’s flower buds, coconut palm sugar has a lower GI rating than sugar. It also contains minerals potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, amino acids and B vitamins.
Next steps for food producers
For start-ups and smaller producers, the introduction of the sugar tax could potentially eat into the all-important profit margin. The key is to find a way to maximise taste while reducing sugar content so that the sugar tax isn’t imposed. How do you know if you’ve successfully reduced the sugar content without impacting taste? Well, you could employ a sensory panel which is an expensive but effective solution or alternatively, find a partner experienced with ingredients and reformulation process/options.