What should Europe do to promote balanced diets?

By Nicholas Hodac, Director General of UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe

 

The new EU political term offers a crucial opportunity for policymakers to reevaluate their strategy on how to promote balanced diets more effectively. We should all aim for European policies that prioritise the health and well-being of its citizens with appropriate measures delivering tangible results. These should consider voluntary actions as an alternative to regulation and science-based policies grounded in robust food and drink consumption data.

The European soft drinks sector, represented by UNESDA, stands as a prime example of how self-regulatory actions respond to societal concerns and catalyse meaningful change, serving as an inspiration for others to follow. UNESDA is proud to be the world’s first food industry association to have taken a bold set of voluntary commitments 20 years ago in relation to no marketing to children and stringent rules for selling soft drinks in EU schools, including no sales of our drinks in primary schools.

In addition, our sector has embarked on an impressive sugar reduction journey over the past two decades. We have been continuously reducing the average sugar content in our soft drinks by reformulating our existing recipes, offering smaller pack sizes for better portion control and moderate consumption, innovating to increase our offer of no- and low-calorie options and nudging the consumer towards these drinks. We have achieved remarkable milestones in sugar reduction: a 13.3% reduction between 2000-2015, followed by a 14.6% reduction between 2015-2019, and more recently, a 7.6% reduction between 2019-2022.

As a sector with a longstanding commitment to balanced lifestyles, it was only natural for us to sign the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices in 2021, which provides an ideal platform for stepping up collective efforts to build a more sustainable and healthier EU food and drink system through ambitious voluntary commitments.

We are determined to continue encouraging Europeans towards balanced diets. To make further progress in our actions, we need support from policymakers to:

  • Ensure up-to-date and reliable food and drink consumption data in Europe to better understand what interventions can be effective. Based on our thorough analysis of existing data, two key aspects became evident: 1) There is a decrease in soft drink consumption in several European countries showing that our sector is not the primary contributor to sugar intake. This points to the need for policymakers to take a multi-faceted approach that considers all sources of added sugars, not only sugar sweetened beverages; 2) Current data is insufficient to serve as the basis for informed policy decisions. It is imperative to ensure the availability of accurate and comparable EU-wide data to understand consumption patterns for effective decision-making.

 

  • Develop evidence-based policies that do not discriminate against ingredients  approved as safe for use by health authorities, and which enable food innovation. For example, low- and no-calorie sweeteners are ingredients whose safety is thoroughly assessed by the European Food Safety Authority in the EU. They help consumers to manage their sugar and calorie intake by providing the taste that consumers know and expect from their favourite foodstuffs, yet containing no, or very few, calories. These ingredients deserve a far better public recognition for the role they play in achieving public health objectives, such as reducing overweight and obesity.

 

  • Support science-based, harmonised and non-discriminatory labelling policies to help consumers make informed choices. Policymaking must not be guided by emotional biases; instead, it should be firmly grounded in evidence and ensure equal treatment for any food or drink.

 

As a sector, we will continue to do our part to support balanced diets. We look forward to working with the new EU policymakers and other stakeholders to drive wider positive impact within a policy environment that promotes voluntary initiatives and science-based policies.

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