There was a 29% reduction in the total amount of sugar sold in soft drinks in the UK between 2015-2018, despite an increase in sales of soft drinks by volume of 7%, according to new research supported by the NIHR Oxford BRC.
The research, published in BMC Medicine, shows that individual soft drink companies in the UK are making a sizeable contribution to sugar reduction, with eight out of the top 10 companies reducing the sugar content of their products by 15% or more.
There has been considerable pressure on the industry to reduce the sugar content of soft drinks. In April 2018, the British government introduced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) to help tackle childhood obesity.
The researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH) at the University of Oxford looked at the nutritional information of a range of soft drinks in the UK, including carbonated drinks, concentrates, 100% juice, juice drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and bottled water. They combined this with sales data from 2015 to 2018.
Lead researcher Lauren Bandy said: “This study is not designed to evaluate the specific effects of the SDIL, but nonetheless shows that sustained pressure on business, including using fiscal measures, has led to a striking reduction in the sugar content of soft drinks in the UK.”
The two biggest companies, Coca-Cola and Britvic, reduced the total quantity of sugars they sold in drinks by 17% and 26% respectively, although the sugar content of their flagship brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi remained unchanged.
There were increases in volume sales of sugars in drinks sold by Innocent and Red Bull; the sugar content of their products was largely unchanged, but the companies had seen increases in overall volume sales.
The analysis shows that 73% of the reduction seen in the amount of sugar sold in soft drinks was due to reformulation of existing products or the introduction of new, lower sugar drinks, and 27% was due to changes in purchasing behaviour.
Lauren Bandy said: “It is encouraging to see such a large reduction in sugars sold in soft drinks. This is largely a result of change in the composition of drinks but there have also been shifts in consumer purchasing behaviour, with more consumers choosing drinks with low, or no, sugar content.
“These changes are likely to be due to a combination of government action, mostly through the SDIL, changes in marketing practices on the part of the soft drinks industry, and greater awareness of the harms caused by sugary drinks amongst consumers. They show that it is possible for improvements in public health to be consistent with successful business practices.”
Co-author Prof Susan Jebb, Oxford BRC Theme Lead for Obesity, Diet and Lifestyle, said: “National and international 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.’
All of the authors are funded by the NIHR Oxford BRC.