‘The War on Sugar’ - A bad news story for the food and drink industry or an opportunity to lead?

Published: 22 February 2016

The sugar debate certainly looks as though it is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and rightly so. The health of our nation is an issue that needs addressing, and if the debate on sugar brings this to the fore then it cannot be a bad thing. How the problem is addressed and tackled on the other hand, is a point that still causes major contention.

In the UK 67% of men, 57% of women and, terrifyingly, over a quarter of children (26% of boys and 29% of girls) are either overweight or obese. The childhood obesity trend is particularly worrying as obesity in childhood tracks into adulthood with all its associated risks. So how can we prevent the children of today facing an obesity epidemic?

The highly publicised proposal for a ’sugar tax’ has gained a lot of support outside of the food and drink industry and the recent report from Public Health England and the latest joint study from Cancer Research UK and the UK Health Forum (an alliance for the prevention of heart disease) also support the introduction of a tax up to 20%. Whether this is the right approach is still up for debate, but personally I don’t believe this will be an effective long-term solution.

Soft drinks and more recently flavoured hot drinks from high-street food-to-go outlets have been the focus of charity campaign group Action on Sugar and the media to highlight the amount of hidden sugars in popular items. But it would be unwise to think that the ‘war on sugar’ will continue to only apply to drinks, this is an industry wide issue.

How the food industry reacts to this debate will be key and the solution will not be found by working in isolation. This has to be tackled by a collaborative, industry wide approach encompassing manufacturers, retailers, and foodservice and hospitality providers. Joined-up thinking and sharing of expertise across the industry, involving functions such as technical, product development, process, safety, commercial and marketing will be essential to finding an appropriate long-term solution.

The industry has a big role to play in the immediate solutions, such as product reformulations, innovation and responsible advertising and promotions, but it also has the opportunity to lead and play a bigger part in enhancing consumer understanding of good nutrition and the causes of obesity.

I am a firm believer in education being the ultimate solution and that children should be taught what is in their food, which foods are good and which are not, so they can grow up making informed decisions on what they eat. This is by no means the easy option, the cheapest option, or the quickest way to get results, but it has the widest reach and the opportunity to have a more lasting impact.

Health, sugar and calorie reduction are not new agenda points for most food businesses but how the industry reacts to the added Government, charity and media pressure will be interesting and could lead to some challenging decisions having to be made and traditional boundaries being broken.

Katie Hart is an Associate Consultant in the Consumer and Retail Practice

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