A little too much sugar?

Monday’s (10 November, 2014) press release from Action on Sugar sparked the latest wave of news headlines regarding the sugar content of our products. This time the release was focussed on comparing sugar levels in children’s smoothies and juices to Coca Cola. This comes a week after the US city of Berkeley voted to introduce a “sugar tax” on soft drinks. We ask if this is another step towards legislation or even a sugar tax in the UK.

Too sweet?

This year has seen a cycle of stories calling for changes to the sugar in our foods. Earlier in the year the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggested that we all should consume lower levels of sugar and this has been bookended by activity by Action on Sugar. The most recent survey looks at the sugar content for 57 smoothies or fruit juices and identifies those that contain an equivalent or higher level of sugar than Coca Cola.

Looking beyond the headlines it can be seen that all of the smoothies cited by the survey contain only fruit, so all the sugars in the product are natural fruit sugars. It is generally accepted that there is a difference between naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruits – which are viewed as acceptable, and added sugar which is what needs to be closely monitored. However, the Action on Sugar group references work by the WHO which suggests that by processing the natural sugars in the fruit into juice those sugars go from being good to being bad.

Perhaps ironically given the way in which the press release was phrased, these products are actually legally able to bear the claim: “WITH NO ADDED SUGAR”, provided that they indicate that they contain naturally occurring sugars. It is also significant that all of those products are being lawfully labelled and marketed.

Sugar-coated politics

The sugar debate is complex and multifaceted. Could some reformulation help? Certainly, but there already has been through industry led action and incentives like the Responsibility Deal and it is far from the only issue here. 

As we hear of more of our youth having surgery for obesity related issues there must be a much wider social challenge here as technology is allowing a generation to grow up more sedentary; changing the way we live. This, combined with people becoming time poor and unable to cook from scratch, means that there are a wide range of issues that should be being addressed in early education. 

No single food or ingredient is to blame for obesity; lifestyles and wider behaviour is what needs to change, a tax is unlikely to be a solution.

Earlier this year, Mexico introduced what was coined a “soda tax” on soft drinks, Finland has a “sweets” tax which applies to soft drinks and only earlier this month, the city of Berkeley in California voted to approve a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Is this the direction Action on Sugar are luring us in? Does the UK really need or want a tax on sugar? 

With the UK soon to enter a general election year, there is every chance that this issue could start to gain some political momentum and that is seldom a good thing for industry.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Dominic Watkins

Partner - Head of Food Group

I am Head of DWF’s internationally renowned food sector group as well as being Head of Regulatory in London.

Hilary Ross

Executive Partner (London) - Head of Retail, Food & Hospitality

Recognised by The Lawyer as one of the UK’s Top 100 lawyers, I advise clients on compliance and challenges across the EU in relation to products, systems and safety.

Anne Marie Taylor

Senior Solicitor