Michelle Norman is Director of Sustainability at SBFE.
A harmonised FOP labelling system that is rooted in sound science and reflects progressive reformulation efforts by the industry can implement the goals of the Farm to Fork Strategy.
It is in the context of rising obesity rates around the world that food and drink innovation has an ever more relevant role to play to support consumers to transition towards healthier diets. While the increased risk of non-communicable diseases should be tackled through holistic policy measures, it is a key priority for the soft drinks industry to contribute and do its part to addressing this challenge.
Ahead of World Food Day on 16 October 2021, at Suntory Beverage & Food Europe (SBFE) – manufacturers of the brands Schweppes, Oasis, Lucozade and Orangina – we find ourselves in a position to deliver on the promise of better nutrition for citizens in the EU and beyond. For soft drinks, the key focus area to achieve this objective is innovative product reformulation to reduce the added sugar content of beverages, alongside the introduction of lower calorie and no calorie drinks.
In fact, a recent JRC study acknowledged that our industry is making progress on reducing sugar in soft drinks. Moreover, we are committed to creating healthier drink choices and consider the recommendations of the recently published EFSA opinion related to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Representing the entire soft drinks industry, UNESDA committed to reducing the added sugar content in beverages by another 10% from 2019-2025.
To conceptualise the transition towards a more sustainable food system in the EU, the Farm to Fork Strategy can be the driving policy vehicle to support healthier food production and consumption. Particularly the proposal for a harmonised front-of-pack nutrition labelling and nutrient profiles present opportunities to create a policy environment that enables consumers to make health-conscious food choices.
The recommendations of the European Parliament on the Farm to Fork Strategy – due to be adopted in plenary session in October 2021 – can make a meaningful contribution to accomplishing the strategy’s objectives. Members of the Parliament rightfully point out that any front-of-pack nutrition labelling system should help consumers to make healthier food choices by providing them with comprehensible information on what they consume.
In our view, the success of such a labelling scheme on soft drinks depends on its acknowledgement of product reformulation efforts by the industry. At SBFE, we have already achieved a 22% reduction in our drinks’ added sugar content since 2015 and are working towards an overall reduction of 35% added sugar. In the last 5 years, we have reformulated 50% of our European drinks’ portfolio to lower the sugar content – that’s 287 different drink formulations, which include iconic brands such as Orangina, Lucozade, and Oasis.
However, product reformulation remains a challenging process that requires significant investment in research and development and takes a considerable amount of time, including consumer acceptance of new recipes for their favourite brands. At the same time, our efforts to reduce the sugar content in our products are limited by proliferating misinformation about non-sugar sweeteners.
Research has shown that product reformulation is indeed one of the most effective strategies for addressing obesity and reducing consumption of saturated fats, sugar, and salt without requiring significant changes in consumer behaviour.
Therefore, it will be critical for any nutrition labelling system to consider the milestones achieved when it comes to sugar reduction by categorising reformulated drinks in a healthier position compared to conventional options with higher sugar content. Here, a clear, science-based, and non-discriminatory algorithm that reflects gradual reformulation efforts to reduce products’ sugar and calorie content will prove the most successful. Such a framework would encourage companies to incentivise and continue research and innovation on product reformulation and consumer preferences to increase the uptake of healthier food and drinks option.
On the other hand, to address the complexity of the nutrition debate, we believe that the EU’s sustainable food systems policy should take a comprehensive approach that includes educational campaigns to help people make healthier food and drink choices.
To enable the industry to grow sustainably and to support the shift to an ever more sustainable food system, the implementation of the Farm to Fork strategy will be critical and provides sufficient opportunities to put the EU on this trajectory. We are ready to play our part in the transition, increase our efforts, and share our experience. We believe that only a science-based and collaborative approach can turn these measures into drivers for change.
 Ares, Gastón & Aschemann-Witzel, Jessica & Curutchet, Maria & Antúnez, Lucía & machín, Leandro & Vidal, Leticia & Giménez, Ana. (2018). Product reformulation in the context of nutritional warning labels: Exploration of consumer preferences towards food concepts in three food categories. Food Research International.