The international certification authority for sugar said many of the brands that carry its logo are already struggling to find space on supermarket shelves. If prices go up, availability could fall further, it warned, leaving little choice for consumers looking for healthier products.
“Slap tariffs on other categories if you want, but allow lower sugar manufactured foods to go and come across the border duty free,” said the kitemark’s head of European relations Olivia Hudson. “It’s crucial that we get this right: the health of disadvantaged communities across Europe will suffer if taxes are allowed to be levied,” she added.
Sugarwise, which was launched in the UK in March 2016 and has just expanded into Europe, certifies foods with less than 5g of free sugars per 100g and drinks with less than 2.5g per 100ml.
The logo currently appears on a range of products, largely manufactured by small to medium-sized brands like Plamil chocolate, JimJam spreads and Masons Baked Beans. This autumn it will appear on a new product being launched by Robinsons Fruit Shoots.
Demand but no appetite
But founder Rend Platings said UK supermarkets have yet to “really engage” with the low sugar category. “Manufacturers are knocking on doors but they’re not getting a look in,” she told FoodNavigator. “But these brands are getting a following online [and] parents are looking for them.”
Indeed, Mintel research shows that consumers in European markets are cutting their consumption of sugar – in Poland and Spain 63% are actively reducing their consumption or avoiding the ingredient altogether. Some 60% of Italians are doing the same, as well as 55% of French consumers and 54% of Germans.
A poll conducted by Research Engine for Sugarwise in October 2016 also showed that three in four shoppers (75%) said they “might” or would “definitely” switch from their usual brand to one carrying the Sugarwise logo.
Platings said retailers were missing a trick by not stocking the wide range of low- or no-sugar brands available. “We’re not talking about biscuits with 20% less sugar … these are biscuits that are sugar-free. The biscuit category is losing sales due to concerns over sugar. I don’t know why [retailers aren’t stocking more low sugar options].”
Cost is perhaps one barrier: it’s much cheaper (and easier) to plump up products with sugar than to reformulate. SMEs also don’t have the economies of scale to compete with major manufacturers on price. Healthier products already tend to be more expensive as a result, which is why Sugarwise wants tariff free movement of low sugar goods after Brexit.
Platings has organised summits in Brussels and London next month in a bid to air some of these concerns and to highlight the knock-on effect she believes new tariffs could have on the availability of healthy foods and efforts to tackle obesity.
Earlier this month the UK government revealed proposals for a temporary customs arrangement with the EU following Brexit. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, tweeted that the chance of being “in and out of the customs union and ‘invisible borders’ is a fantasy”.
It’s not just about tariffs and duty, though – Sugarwise is also concerned that rigorous EU directives and regulations concerning food labelling, like the European Food Information to Consumers Regulation, will be scrapped once the UK leaves the Union.
The UK government is keen to update the labelling rules once the country leaves the EU, but a commitment in the childhood obesity strategy suggests the plan is to tighten the rules up rather than water them down. Brexit will offer an opportunity to review the current nutritional labelling scheme and consider “clearer visual labelling … to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food”, the government has said.