Some call it “Draconian”, others call it “positive”. A recent proposal by the UK government has caused extensive debate as legislators pursue the much-discussed “sugar tax” to control child obesity. The aim is to reduce the amount of sugar in foods and drinks that are popular with children by 20 per cent, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, among other health concerns. In the US, a similar move has been proposed to force all sugary soft drinks to display warning labels about the dangers of sugar.
Not everyone is happy with these developments, however. As City A.M. reports, campaign group Action on Sugar are far from satisfied with the UK Treasury’s action, saying that the government has “backed down on some of the key policies in the report released today, which they were previously going to implement”. These policies included the mandatory reduction of sugar in soft drinks, better labelling on food and drink products, calorie counts on menus and the ability for councils to ban junk food advertising near schools. According to Action on Sugar, the “sugar tax” does not go far enough.
In support of the warning labels approach, research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, however, indicates that teenagers are over 15 per cent less likely to purchase unhealthy beverages if they contain sugar warning levels notifying them of risks such as tooth decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
A similar study in Pediatrics journal shows that sixty per cent of parents shown warning labels about high sugar contents would reconsider giving their children a sugary soft drink again. As Professor David Hammond suggests, “You can say that something has 18 or 24 grams of sugar, but most people have no clue what a gram is." Labels therefore fill in this gap by giving clear information about the risks associated with consuming these unhealthy drinks.
What would sugar warnings mean for the food and drink industry?
Soft drinks industry groups, however, were disappointed with the UK “sugar tax” approach, and Gavin Partington, director of the British Soft Drinks Association, claims that these changes could cause further economic uncertainty in the wake of the Brexit vote. He suggests that these changes could cause “thousands of job losses and yet fail to have a meaningful impact on levels of obesity”. A report by Oxford Economics warned that the tax could cost the UK economy £132 million. However, this research was funded by the British Soft Drinks Association itself, which many argue invalidates its findings.
So what could these changes mean for the food and drink industry? Clearly the response to trial warning labels has demonstrated that consumers will be markedly less likely to purchase drinks if they are demonstrated to contain unhealthy quantities of sugar. But this is not merely limited to retail shops. In August, New York City councilwoman Inez Barron suggested legislature requiring the city’s health department to produce a poster posing the “risks of excessive sugar and other carbohydrate intake for diabetic and pre-diabetic individuals.”
Similarly, in 2015, the city’s Board of Health enacted a rule last year that required chain restaurants to post a symbol — “a salt shaker inside a triangle — next to food items that contain more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium.”
But these developments are not popular in the restaurant industry, either. Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, says that the city has: "Taken it upon itself to endlessly target the restaurant and foodservice industry with mandates that offer no solution to underlying health problems. This is just another attempt to showcase misleading information that attempts to scare people about products that are perfectly safe in moderation and can be enjoyed as part of a balanced lifestyle. A poster on a wall is no way to improve public health."
While consumers tend to greatly appreciate the presence of calorie counts on menus, could sugar warnings in restaurants be a step too far? With regards to the UK government’s action plan, Ben Cooper of Just Food thinks otherwise, insisting that the changes could be expanded. He says, “having seen the government take this measure with soft drinks, food companies would be taking a great risk if they assumed the warning that it could legislate further on food and health issues was an idle threat.”
Restaurants offering healthy drinks need not fear, however, as the presence of sugary drink warnings can be incredibly valuable in demonstrating trustworthiness to the consumer and reassuring them that they can try out products whilst protecting their health. Bearing this is in mind, now is the time for proprietors to review the products they offer and ensure that healthy options are always available.