Richard Hall, chairman of Zenith International, argued that there was a limit to what a company and an industry sector could do.
Speaking at Food Matters Live in London, he said: “I think food companies have tried to follow the prevailing wisdom on nutrition and food science, fat, salt and sugar.”
“Forcing soft drinks companies to meet artificial tax bands won’t solve obesity. We need a comprehensive strategy that includes labelling, education, reformulation, action by parents and schools as well as by companies.”
Taking part in a panel discussion that discussed changing consumer tastes, Hall spoke of the challenges of implementing a sugar tax as outlined by the UK government.
Under new proposals, the sugar tax will come into effect in April 2018, aimed at beverages with more than 5 g sugar per 100 ml. A second tax band for drinks with more than 8 g per 100 ml will also be introduced.
“The sugar tax has two years to implement, two more years to assess how effective it has been,” argued Hall. “So that could mean four years of apparent but incomplete action.
“Sugar gives great pleasure, great taste, and great mouth feel. Sweeteners are becoming more natural and we know that consumers want more natural products with less calories.
“However, consumer knowledge has to develop and consumer tastes have to change.”
Rise of low-cal drinks
According to a survey carried out last year by the UK's Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), low calorie drinks purchases increased by more than a third in the UK.
Research also suggests that the majority of soft drinks (57%) and almost half of carbonates (49%) are low and no calorie.
Fellow panellist Paul Graham, UK’s managing director at Britvic, which manufactures juice under the J20 brand and manufactures and distributes Pepsi through an exclusive agreement with PepsiCo, said that Britvic had voluntarily made significant progress in calorie and sugar reduction, removing over 18 billion calories since 2012.
“Going forwards there are four areas that our business and the industry is focussed on. They are reformulation, innovation, motivation and education.
“We innovate with the introduction of new natural sweeteners, and motivate through our advertising and packaging. We aim to educate by clearer labelling on our products.
“We’ve already made moves to reduce the calories in our products but we acknowledge that more needs to be done.”
Right direction is taxing?
But Hugo Harper, senior advisor at The Behavioural Insights Team, urged the industry not to pass up such an opportunity, highlighting the industry could take a lead on such matters.
“I agree that the sugar tax won’t solve everything but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
“This is a fantastic opportunity in the areas of reformulation. If you change the formula of the product, consumer behaviour can change too. Less sugar, fewer calories and benefits to health as a result.”
The drive to adopt reformulation specifically targets the producers and importers of sugary soft drinks to encourage them to remove added sugar, promote diet drinks and reduce portion sizes for high sugar drinks.
“If companies take the right steps to make their drinks healthier they will pay less tax, or even nothing at all,” the government claimed.
The levy is expected to raise funds totalling £520m (€618m) in its first year. These funds will be used to introduce sports and programmes to children to promote a healthier lifestyle.