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UK researchers flag room for “rapid action” as soft drink and yogurt sugar reduction successes are revealed

There has been a 29 percent reduction in the total amount of sugar sold in UK soft drinks between 2015 and 2018. This is according to a study from the University of Oxford, which confirmed Public Health England (PHE)’s findings late last year that pointed to the success of the Soft Drink Industry Levy (SDIL). Sugar reduction has also spread to other areas of industry, with an independent study from the University of Leeds in the UK finding a 13 percent overall decrease in total sugar content in UK yogurts since 2016. Nevertheless, researchers from both studies flag that more changes are necessary to ensure good public health.

“The food industry has a responsibility to ensure healthier options are available and that our children aren’t flooded by products full of hidden sugars. We hope to see them step up even more to this challenge,” Dr. Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE, comments on the yogurt study.

Lead author Bernadette Moore, Associate Professor of Obesity in the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds University, adds that lowering sugar intake is the best way to prevent obesity and protect teeth – particularly for small children. “Therefore, these are encouraging findings and good insight into current market trends,” she notes.

Meanwhile, Susan Jebb, co-author of the soft drink study and Professor of Diet and Population Health at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, highlights that national and governments are calling for change in the food industry to improve public health.

“This new method allows researchers to monitor the progress being made and to make this information available to the public. This external scrutiny will hopefully encourage more positive and rapid action by the food industry to achieve healthier diets,” she adds.

A change driven by reformulation
The research team at the University of Oxford combined sales data from 2015-2018 with the nutritional information of drinks, such as carbonated drinks, concentrates, 100 percent juice, juice drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and bottled water. In addition to finding an overall reduction of nearly a third, in line with PHE’s findings, the analysis revealed that 73 percent of the sugar reduction was due to the reformulation of existing products or the introduction of new, lower-sugar drinks. Meanwhile, 27 percent was due to changes in purchasing behavior, with more consumers choosing drinks with low or no sugar content.

Lead researcher Lauren Bandy notes that these changes are likely to be due to a combination of government action, mostly through the SDIL and greater awareness of the harms caused by sugary drinks among consumers. Changes in marketing practices are also key, with exposed Coca-Cola documents from 2013 and 2014 revealing the beverage giant intended to use public relations campaigns to influence teenagers’ perceptions of the health risks. Last week, Diet Dr Pepper saw the dismissal of class action that claimed that its use of the word “diet” violates California consumer-fraud laws. “However, our results show that it is possible for improvements in public health to be consistent with successful business practices,” says Bandy.

The researchers also discovered that the two biggest companies, Coca-Cola and Britvic, had reduced the total quantity of sugars they sold in drinks by 17 percent and 26 percent, respectively, although the sugar content of their flagship brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi remained unchanged. Additionally, there were increases in volume sales of sugars in drinks sold by Innocent and Red Bull due to an increase in overall volume sales. Overall, eight out of the top ten soft drink companies in the UK have reduced the sugar content of their products by 15 percent or more.

Yogurt “not a straightforward choice”
Meanwhile, the researchers from the University of Leeds examined product and nutrient information from 893 yogurts available in UK supermarkets and compared all products to a 2016 baseline survey. The results were also in line with PHE’s findings, which had found that there was an average sugar reduction across food categories of just 2.9 percent.

However, Moore explains to that while the results are similar to PHE’s, the team took a unique approach in taking a paired product-based analysis, rather than assessing sales weighted average from consumer panel data. “This allowed us to get unique market insights – most notably that the sugar reduction is occurring largely through product discontinuation rather than reformulation.”

Overall, the research team found that within yogurt, there was the most reduction in fruit yogurts, drinks and products aimed at children. Additionally, the available products classed as “low sugar” – containing less than 5 g of sugar per 100 g – increased from 9 percent in 2016 to 15 percent in 2019.

However, researchers warn that yogurt is still not a straightforward choice for consumers looking for healthy foods. “Yogurt, in particular, has something we refer to as a ‘health halo,’ where sugar contents of what are considered ‘healthy foods’ are underestimated. Yogurt definitely can have health benefits, but ultimately the final nutrient composition depends on the type of milk used and the ingredients added during production, which often include additional sugars and other sweeteners,” explains Moore.

The study also highlights the rise of dairy alternative yogurts, with plant-based offerings nearly doubling since 2016. These products have variable sugar contents, with 37 percent being low sugar but 27 percent having over 10 g of total sugar per 100 g. Additionally, 20 percent list sugar as the second most common ingredient after water.

“The question of whether plant-based yogurts provide the same nutritional and health benefits as those made from cow’s milk is currently under investigation. Because dairy alternatives do not have lactose, which is a naturally-occurring sugar, the total sugar content comes entirely from added sweeteners. Generally, added sugars are considered to be worse for teeth and health,” concludes Moore.

Doubt has also recently been cast upon the health credentials of plant-based meat alternatives. Many argue that these foods are more processed and contain more salt than traditional meat, with UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics calling for better labeling and transparency in this area.

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