Industry Increases Healthier Beverage Options through Sugar Reduction

Diabetes is “very serious in Singapore”, and is even a “health crisis” for certain ethnic groups, declared Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally 2017 speech, as he urged the population toward healthier living: get regular medical check-ups, exercise more, eat less and more healthily, and cut down on consumption of soft drinks.

On a global scale, Singapore has the second-highest prevalence of diabetes (10.5 per cent) in comparison to other developed nations, with the United States of America (U.S.) taking the lead by a margin of 0.22 per cent. Diabetes affects at least one in nine (11 per cent) Singaporeans aged between 18 and 69.

“Food Industry Asia (FIA) is supportive of PM Lee’s call for a healthier lifestyle across dietary choices, health monitoring and increased physical activity. With an understanding of the burden of both obesity and diabetes on the local population and economy, FIA actively fosters multi-stakeholder partnership in developing solutions to tackle complex nutrition and health challenges facing Singapore, as well as the rest of the region,” said Mr Matt Kovac, Executive Director at FIA.

“A whole-of-society approach is needed in this war against diabetes. As such, we stand with our industry partners in their commitments and efforts to make a wider range of healthier food options available to consumers.”


Industry’s commitment to sugar reduction in drink products

Often, sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are targeted as one of the main determinants of obesity and diabetes, as they consist of refined sugars, and can contain eight cubes of sugar (around 40 grams) in a can of soft drink. In response to PM Lee’s speech, it was announced that seven beverage manufacturers have signed a pledge that commits to reduce the amount of sugar across their soft drink product ranges sold in Singapore, to 12 per cent or lower by 2020.

The pledge emphasises efforts taken by food and beverage industry players to reduce sugar and reformulate products in their portfolios to provide consumers with healthier food options, so as to drive better food choices and healthier lifestyles, in a measure to tackle the growing rate of diabetes in Singapore. The companies that signed this pledge are Coca-Cola, F&N Foods, Malaysia Dairy Industries, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Pokka and Yeo Hiap Seng. Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo are FIA Members, and work closely with FIA in its mission to effectively and sustainably meet public health goals across Asia.

“Coca-Cola recognises that diabetes and obesity are very real issues that impact individuals, families and communities around the world and in Singapore,” said Mr Pablo Largacha, Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications at Coca-Cola Asia Pacific. “We recognise that we have a shared responsibility to help Singaporeans reduce calories and sugar and we’re taking action.”

“This industry pledge, and our additional commitment to reduce the sugar content in our portfolio of sugar-sweetened beverages by 10 per cent by 2020, are two of the multi-faceted actions that we are taking. We are also taking many other actions to help Singaporeans better manage the amount of sugar and calories they get from our drinks: We’re reducing sugar and calories across many of our brands, and offering more new drinks with low sugar content or no sugar added. We’re making smaller, more convenient packages available, so managing sugar intake is easier.”

Nestlé SA, likewise, had previously declared its global commitment to reduce sugar and salt content in its products by 2020. The food and beverage company is looking to reduce added sugars in its products by 5 per cent within the next three years. In Singapore, all Nestlé beverage products currently contain 12 grams or less of total sugars per 100ml serving. The food and beverage company continues to innovate and provide healthier products for consumers, such as making further sugar reductions and increasing protein content, through new product launches.

Similarly, about 80 per cent of PepsiCo’s beverages currently sold in Singapore contain 12 per cent or less added sugars, as part of the company's voluntary commitment to the pledged amount across its beverages sold locally by 2020.

Globally, following its Performance with Purpose commitments, PepsiCo has worked to transform its food and beverage portfolio to increase healthier choices for consumers. With a particular focus on beverages, PepsiCo made a global commitment to reduce added sugars such that, by 2025, two-thirds of the company’s global beverage volume will contain less than 100 calories per 12 ounce serving. Locally, additional efforts are underway.

“PepsiCo fully supports PM Lee’s call to promote healthy living. In April 2017, we opened a new concentrate plant in Singapore to support the company’s goal of transforming our beverage portfolio to reduce calories and added sugars. This ties in with our partnership with the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to provide Singaporeans with reduced-sugar products. We will continue this work with the goal of meeting the Singapore government’s goal by 2020, if not earlier,” said Mr Chris Argent, Senior Director, Public Policy, Government Affairs and Communications, Asia Pacific, PepsiCo.

Other companies have embarked on further sugar-reduction innovations through the development of functional ingredients – including Allulose by Matsutani Chemical Industry, and Isomaltulose by Beneo – which not only contribute to the natural sweetness in foods, but also provide physiological benefits. Innovations such as those mentioned above can reduce the negative impact associated with the consumption of sugar-sweetened products.

Further along in his speech, PM Lee touched on the implementation of a sugar tax in countries around the world, questioning the feasibility and success of such a measure. “Nobody has found an ideal solution yet,” he said. “But we are scanning the horizon… Meanwhile, we must do something about this problem of soft drinks and sugar.”

Taxation is not a panacea

While a fiscal approach has been discussed, its impact on reducing the consumption of SSBs may be limited if the calories are substituted from other equally (or more) energy-dense products, resulting in no net change or if attributed to other unintended consequences. However, there is currently no conclusive evidence that shows SSB taxes are effective – they are too narrow a tool to address the monumental critical public health concerns at hand. The results in countries where these taxes have been introduced are still uncertain; their limited effectiveness is principally a result of taxes not reducing the number of calories consumed, but simply shifting consumption patterns.

As such, FIA recommends that rather than focus on a single intervention, a wider set of interventions, such as those that are developed with input and commitment from all stakeholders, and is supported by science-based evidence in which all components of the policy intervention support a clear objective, should be considered and debated.

“A sugar tax should be considered only as a last resort,” said Mr Seah Kian Peng, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NTUC Fairprice, in “Will tax hit the sweet spot?”, this week’s Views from the Top segment by The Business Times, which aired the viewpoints of top business leaders on the introduction and effectiveness of a sugar tax in Singapore. Mr Seah emphasised that Singaporeans should regard healthy eating and an active lifestyle as personal responsibilities, and make the conscious effort toward making healthier choices.

Likewise, Mr Edwin Khew, President of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES), stated that focusing on a single nutrient – dismissing other dietary and lifestyle choices – is insufficient in addressing the rising rate of diabetes, adding that a holistic approach is needed.

Mr Victor Mills, Chief Executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC), highlighting the “undesirable, unintended consequences” taxation has brought about, noted that the education of producers and consumers should be a key approach in achieving moderation in consumption habits.

Like Mr Seah, FIA stands by PM Lee’s emphasis on the importance of consumers’ personal choice and responsibility, particularly in the areas of diet and disease prevention. While the food and beverage industry must play its part in encouraging healthy lifestyles through efforts such as consumer education and food innovation, consumers should, likewise, take personal action to implement healthy choices and practices.

“We’re giving people the information they need to make truly informed choices,” Mr Largacha added. “And we’re diligently following our longstanding policy not to target advertising to children under age 12 anywhere in the world, including in Singapore.”