Tesco’s decision to wield the axe on added-sugar offerings from the likes of Ribena and Capri-Sun has sparked fury among consumers, but it could mark the start of far reaching industry wide changes.
The move by Tesco is part of a much larger drive to show it is engaged in the debate over rising obesity levels and other health implications as the nation’s appetite for high sugar and fat food rages.
As well as a commitment to remove the sugar content of its own-brand soft drinks by five per cent each year, the grocer was also the first to dispel all sweets from its checkouts in bid to curb unhealthy impulse-buys.
All supermarkets, bar Asda, have since followed its lead and so 'Ribena-gate' as it has been dubbed, could mark the beginning of a wider industry cull of high sugar drinks.
In the immediate aftermath, the move prompted fury on Twitter; ‘what right does Tesco have to decide what’s good for my health?’ asked some, and is it hypocritical for it continue to sell Coca-Cola and cigarettes?
Yet, amid the backlash, a survey from OnePulse found that only 23 per cent of consumers knew how much sugar was in Ribena and after learning the amount nearly half (46 per cent) agreed that a Ribena ban at Tesco will be effective in tackling obesity. This suggests where Tesco thinks it can make a difference to both the rising obesity rate and perceptions of it as a responsible retailer.
Founder of parenting website Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, told The Drum that reaction to the cull was mixed among the platforms some 14 million monthly users.
“It is a good start but many people are a bit bewildered and not sure what to do for the best for their families. Across the food industry, it feels as though the issues of health, obesity and ingredients needs to be addressed in a more coherent way,” she said.
“Many ready meals and pre-prepared products - especially those that are 'low fat'! - have a great deal of added sugar; low-sugar products tend to include artificial sweeteners, which many parents prefer to avoid. So there's a long way to go yet for both retailers and manufacturers.”
The decision to target soft drinks might seem strange; they do contain much less sugar per 100ml compared to other categories. But, according to a US study it is the largest contributor to sugar purchase at 50g per person per day compared to 37g for biscuits, cakes, confectionery, ice cream, pastries and sweet and savoury snacks combined.
Tesco is also trying to make a distinction between high sugar goods that are specifically aimed at kids – like Ribena – and those that are targeting a general consumer, such as Coke.
“This kind of intervention may drive both consumer behaviour change and manufacturer innovation,” said Tom Knox, IPA president and chairman of ad agency DLKW Lowe. “The agenda on childhood obesity is a very active one, which has strong support in Government and that they have to see this as an opportunity to be part of the solution in terms of looking at their product mix”
In other words, for the brands affected – and others like it – now may be the time to ramp up the focus, and budget, on alternative products with no added-sugar if they want to stay on the shelf of the nation’s largest supermarkets. Of course, this won't come as news. Lucozade's low-sugar varient launched last year, Coca-Cola ploughed millions into marketing its 'Life' range which is 'naturally sweetened with stevia.
However, consumers are yet to be convinced it seems.
“The application of unfamiliar or unpopular artificial sweeteners that may affect the taste of the original beverage (or face health related stigma of their own) is no guaranteed solution, as the steep decline of diet and mid-calorie carbonates in the US illustrates,” explained Howard Telford, senior analyst at Euromonitor.
Additionally, despite the approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and the NHS in Britain, there remains an air of caution over artificial zero-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame on the back of numerous studies which link it to everything from allergies and premature births to liver damage and cancer.
Ultimately, if low or zero sugar alternatives don’t meet consumer’s taste expectations there is a danger of supermarkets like Tesco moving faster than the consumer in delisting category leaders.