Drinks brands compete on sweetness

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

The soft drinks tax is driving the pace of reformulation to reduce sugar
The soft drinks tax is driving the pace of reformulation to reduce sugar

Related tags: Sugar, Coca-cola, Sucralose

The looming sugar tax is accentuating differences among drinks manufacturers over how sweetness levels can be achieved and – in some cases – what those levels should be.

Current proposals for the levy, due in April 2018, are that soft drinks should be taxed in two bands – 8g of added sugar or more per 100ml, and between 5g and 8g. Drinks containing less than 5g of added sugar per 100ml will be exempt from the levy.

“We’ve been reducing added sugar for many years, including a 25% reduction over the last two-to-three years,”​ said David Saint, md of Refresco Gerber, speaking at the Food Matters Live (FML) event held in London last November.

“By January​ [2017], we will have all of the products we’re in control of down below 5g.”

This appeared to confirm that firms were already reformulating drinks to reduce sugar well before the tax was announced. But it also suggested that the prospect of the tax had speeded up this reformulation process.

Coca-Cola used stevia to balance a sugar cut in Sprite, and pursued a similar strategy with Coca-Cola Life, where an initial 33% cut in sugar was extended to 45%.

Balance a sugar cut

“We used a little more of the stevia extract and more of the maskers and enhancers, many of which are stevia-based,”​ said Fiona Angus, senior manager for science and regulatory affairs at Coca-Cola GB and Ireland, also speaking at FML.

Coca-Cola Zero has now been rebranded as Coca-Cola Zero Sugar after reports that half of consumers questioned did not know what the ‘zero’ referred to.

The same sweeteners are used, aspartame and acesulfame K, but the flavourings have been modified to obtain an even closer match to ‘red’ Coca-Cola, according to Angus.

She claimed that not enough was known about consumer sweetness preferences to determine whether they could – or should – gradually be reduced.

“We have an innate preference for sweetness, and research shows that​ [maintaining] sweetness can be a really good way of getting people to move from one product to another,”​ she said.

‘Sugar levels in the levy’

“Part of the problem is that we’re trying to respond to the sugar levels in the levy, but we want to achieve as close a match​ [on flavour] as possible,”​ Angus explained. “We’re trying to work very quickly.”

At Purity Soft Drinks, which owns the Juice Burst and Firefly brands, chief executive David Bell said: “We’ve been aggressively taking out added sugar​, [recently] achieving a 19% reduction by including more juice and using stevia. It’s our intention to be no-added-sugar across the Juice Burst range by 2018.

“The sugar tax has accelerated our plans to reduce sugar, and we’re looking at moving even faster now. Here, we’ve taken our inspiration from salt reduction and the fact that taste receptors adjust. We believe if we reduced sugar by 20% a year, it would still be accepted.”

The response of retailers was always going to be critical to the overall impact of the tax, Bell said. “A number of retailers have chosen to take this as an opportunity to gain competitive edge, and have helped to accelerate the process.”

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