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2 September 2022

Consistency is the key to building a healthier nation

Reformulating food and drink has a big role to play in supporting balanced diets.

By Carol Robert

From next month, food categories classed as HFSS (food that is high in fat, salt or sugar) will no longer be able to be placed in prominent positions in shops or online in England. No more chocolate bars tempting us on the way to the till, or ready meals eye-catchingly placed at the end of the aisles.

We should be in no doubt as to the scale of the problem we are facing – almost two-thirds of us are now overweight while an already overstretched NHS spends around £6.1bn a year on obesity-related illnesses.

And this October should have seen further regulation. The government was planning to ban volume-based price promotions like “buy one, get one free” on HFSS items, while the end of the year would have seen a ban on HFSS adverts online and before the watershed on TV.

The UK government has delayed these measures until October 2023 and January 2024 respectively, citing the current economic crisis and the pressure on families.

At Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I (SBF GB&I), the makers of Lucozade and Ribena, we believe these restrictions should have gone ahead as originally planned. Responsible food and drink manufacturers and retailers have spent years preparing for them.

The delay is symptomatic of an overall approach towards encouraging people to adopt healthier choices that lacks consistency.

Of course, obesity is an incredibly complex problem for which there is no silver-bullet solution. We need a holistic approach to encouraging a balanced diet and healthier, active lifestyles if we are to combat the health crisis this country faces. The government has a vitally important role to play in creating such an environment, one in which all of us – industry, scientists, medical professionals and consumers – can play our part in addressing the problem.

We have seen a glimpse of what can be achieved over the past decade. There has been a collective effort across our industry to reduce the sugar content of soft drinks to support consumers in making healthier choices. In fact, the British Soft Drinks Association reports that low/no-calorie soft drinks accounted for 68.6 per cent of sales in the market in 2020.

With McKinsey’s comprehensive 2014 report into obesity finding that the reformulation of products is the second most impactful intervention available to policymakers (after portion-size control), this is a significant achievement, and we should be looking at how we can secure similar success in other areas.

At SBF GB&I, our “Growing for Good” vision means we are committed to having a positive impact on the lives of our consumers, providing them with a choice of great tasting drinks. We are strong advocates for enabling positive choices, and that’s why we started reformulating our drinks back in 2013, long before the new HFSS restrictions or the “sugar tax” were considered. This means today, we can proudly say that all our favourite soft drink brands, including Ribena, Lucozade and Orangina, are non-HFSS.

But this is not a cost-free option. Since 2013, we have invested more than £13m into innovation and the reformulation of our drinks and we have, at times, faced criticism from consumers about changes to their favourite products. We worked with nutritionists and food scientists and needed to undertake extensive tests and trials to make sure our drinks stayed as close to their classic flavours as possible.

All of this takes time and money. However, we’re proud to say we have successfully removed more than 25,000 tonnes of sugar from our products and 98 billion calories from our consumers’ diets since 2016. The progress that we have made has set us apart from our competitors, reducing sugar by more than twice the UK industry average.

This experience tells us about the importance of a clear and consistent policy environment that gives businesses the long-term confidence necessary to invest in product innovation and provides the right incentives for them to do so.

That is why we opposed the delay to further restrictions, announced just four months before the restrictions were due to come into force.

It is also why we are greatly concerned by changes to the nutrient profiling model – the metric that is used to define which products are HFSS. Nothing could be more detrimental to incentivising reformulation and product innovation than moving the goalposts that the industry has long been aiming for.

The government needs to stop its scattergun approach and finally develop a comprehensive national strategy to ensure we are a healthier nation – a strategy that incentivises and supports food and drink businesses that reformulate their products and give consumers the information and advice they need to make healthier choices.

We are extremely proud of the work we have done so far at SBF GB&I, but we recognise we can go even further and will continue to set ourselves ambitious targets. Like the rest of the soft drinks industry, in order to deliver reformulation, innovation and healthier choices successfully we need clear, fixed targets to aim for and a long-term consistent and stable policy environment to operate in.

At SBF GB&I, we believe soft drinks have a place in a balanced diet and we want the government to step up and deliver on its ambition to encourage healthier lifestyles to tackle obesity rates in the UK.

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