How the industry and public authorities can support Europeans’ journey towards healthier lifestyles
By Helen Benson, Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Director, and Delphine Close, EU Policy Manager, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe
There is no doubt that today’s citizens have become way more cautious about their food choices. Taste and price are no longer the only factors influencing purchasing decisions. The sustainability of food products, including their impact on the environment and nutritional value, is seen as increasingly important by Europeans.
It is in this context that the European Commission is expected to propose this year a new legislative framework for establishing an EU sustainable food system. The objectives of such an initiative are very broad, ranging from achieving food and nutrition security, limiting negative environmental impacts, improving socio-economic welfare in the food sector, to promoting healthy diets.
But how can we promote healthier diets and, more generally, healthier lifestyles in Europe?
There is no simple answer. Banning a single product or ingredient from your diet, or spending hours on a treadmill while not following a balanced diet will, unfortunately, not bring you very far.
Let’s therefore not discriminate against any specific food or ingredient because there is simply no single healthy or unhealthy food that will alone put you on or off track. There are only (un)healthy lifestyles which are based on a series of dietary patterns and physical activity habits.
The European soft drinks industry has always been mindful of this.
To play its part in supporting European citizens in pursuing healthier lifestyles, our sector has taken many voluntary initiatives over the years.
Amongst these actions is our sugar reduction journey, which began in the 1970s when the first no- and low-calorie soft drinks were introduced. But we did not stop there, and kept progressing since then: between 2000 and 2017, we achieved a reduction of 28.6% in average added sugars in our drinks across Europe. We remain the only sector from the entire food and beverage industry to have responded to the European Commission’s 2015 call for a 10% added sugars reduction by 2020 – a commitment that we fulfilled and even surpassed. We decided to follow it by another commitment: we are now committed to achieving a further 10% reduction in average added sugars by 2025, which will represent an overall 33% sugar reduction over the last two decades.
These results are achieved through a number of ways: we are reformulating existing products while maintaining their taste, and we are innovating to continuously introduce new no- and low-calorie products on the European market, which are appreciated by the many consumers who seek to manage their sugar and calorie intake from soft drinks. One of the ways we manage to do so is by using low- and no-calorie sweeteners. Their role in supporting public health objectives is acknowledged by various recent studies, including from the World Health Organization, suggesting that their use tends to reduce people’s consumption of sugar.
We are committed to making further progress in providing more beverage choices with less sugar. To do so, we need support from public health authorities and EU regulators for the continued use of sweeteners.
In parallel, we are also investing in the promotion of no- and low-calorie soft drinks to encourage consumers towards these options.
And these actions are working! Low- and no-calorie soft drinks now constitute over 30% of sales of soft drinks in Europe1 and even over 50% in some countries.
Equally important are our ongoing efforts to increase the availability of smaller pack sizes to support consumers with portion control and to promote moderation. You can find on the shelves many packaging in the size of a standard glass of 250ml, or even smaller – such as 200ml and 150ml packs – for those only looking for a few sips.
Making the healthier choice the easier choice is not that easy
A tempting move for many governments to promote healthier diets is to tax certain foods or drinks in the hope that this measure will decrease consumption of these products and lead to a reduction in overweight and obesity rates. This is also (if not mainly) a way to generate new revenues for the state.
The problem is that overweight and obesity are complex issues with multi-factorial causes requiring a multi-faceted approach. The complexity of overweight and obesity does not lend itself to an isolated simplistic solution like a sugar or a soft drinks tax, for example.
There is actually no clear empirical evidence that taxation is an effective instrument to reduce obesity or non-communicable diseases. This was recognised in the recent European Commission’s report on fiscal measures and pricing policies, which noted that “while purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods high in fat, salt or sugar are reduced following the initiation of fiscal measures, the degree to which this affects overall health outcomes, such as obesity and blood pressure, remains unclear based on current evidence.”
The same report also acknowledges that taxes on soft drinks “are small in absolute terms and apply to products that represent only a small share of households’ overall food and beverage expenditures.” Indeed, soft drinks are frequently far from being the main contributor to sugars’ intake. Such discriminatory taxes are therefore likely to mislead consumers by failing to consider the totality of dietary patterns.
Read our full reaction to this report here.
How can public authorities support citizens’ and the industry’s efforts? Think smart policies, not taxation
Governments and all public authorities have an important role to play in promoting nutrition education and physical activity.
Similarly, they can help move the needle by stimulating other food and drink sectors to take additional voluntary initiatives to reformulate products, offer smaller pack sizes and promote products with no or low amounts of sugar, salt and fat.
Policy-makers can also remove regulatory barriers to innovation to guarantee continuous research and development in the area of nutrition and, more specifically, in product reformulation.
Finally, we cannot ignore the power of nutrition labelling in providing consumers with easy-to-understand information that can help them make more informed dietary choices. We are therefore calling on the European Commission to establish an evidence-based, EU-wide, and easy to interpret front-of-pack nutrition labelling system that is meaningful for consumers and encourages product reformulation. We also consider that any nutrition labelling scheme should be based on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advice to ensure that it does not discriminate against ingredients such as low-calorie sweeteners.
All these policies have one common denominator: they empower consumers to adopt healthier lifestyles rather than simply taxing them for their choices of purchases.
To conclude, while there is no silver bullet for promoting healthier lifestyles, one thing is certain: our industry’s efforts to support consumers in this journey will only reach the desired positive outcomes if governments, industry, the healthcare community and civil society work together towards making healthy diets the norm.
1 GlobalData, 2021.