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Marketing Brand Strategy Sugar Tax

As WHO sours on sweeteners, is it time for a reset of the soft drink industry?


By Huib van Bockel | Founder

July 3, 2023 | 8 min read

Huib van Bockel, founder of natural energy drink Tenzing and former head marketer at Red Bull, has been warning about the risks of artificial sweeteners for years. He reflects on feeling vindicated by WHO research into aspartame.

soft drinks

/ Adobe Stock

After seven years in marketing at Red Bull, I created a healthier energy drink. It’s not been an easy climb. In my quest to re-imagine the energy drinks business, I discovered two key elements of traditional energy recipes that needed radical changing: artificial ingredients and sugar levels.

Traditionally, energy drinks contain at least 11g of sugar per 100ml and are frequently associated with that sugar crash we all fear. I wanted to create something better so spoke to nutritional doctors who recommended that I create an isotonic drink – one that contains the same amount of sugar as your blood sugar levels (around 4.5g per 100ml).

I spoke to four potential production partners to see how I could blend the natural ingredients I wanted to use while removing about 60% of the sugar. The first thing they said was, “What do you want to replace that with? Aspartame, stevia, sucralose…?” I said, “Nothing.”

Three parties dropped me immediately. They said it wasn’t commercially viable and that it wouldn’t sell. But one partner shared my vision and now we’re the third most popular energy drink in London grocery as per recent Nielsen till research.

Since that question, “What do you want to replace the sugar with?”, I’ve read every piece of research that comes out on sweeteners and have become even more passionate about sharing the increasing amount of research damming the use of sweeteners. The latest World Health Organization (WHO) report confirms what I’ve been following for years – that artificial sweeteners should never have been created as an alternative to sugar.

This isn’t our first warning from the WHO. We already know some effects – blood sugar spikes, increased prevalence of type two diabetes, weight gain. In May this year, another study concluded that artificial sweeteners – including ‘natural’ sweeteners such as stevia – shouldn’t be used to control calories and lose weight.

If they don’t help you to lose weight, there is no reason to use them as a ‘low calorie’ option. They also then have adverse side effects, with the latest study declaring aspartame a possible cancer risk.

Let’s look at that again. One, they don’t help you control calories or lose weight, and two, they have adverse effects. If this is the clear conclusion time and again, then why is it still a multi-billion pound business?

The answer lies in the question – because it is a multi-billion pound business. Think of all the global sales of Coke Zero, Monster Ultra, Pepsi Max. And that’s just the soft drinks. I bet hundreds of billions of turnover depends on these nasty artificial sweeteners.

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Who today would launch a product like Coca-Cola? Coke was launched decades ago when nobody cared about artificial ingredients or high sugar levels. If the CEO of Coca-Cola could change his recipe now he would. But he can’t. The only tool he has at his disposal is to say, “Well, they’re not that bad” or to support research that may well support that claim.

You would hope that when a new brand launches nowadays, the latest science would be taken into account. But unfortunately, Prime is a prime example that decades-old thinking has not changed. To the question, “What do you want to replace the sugar with?”, it just went down the lazy, cheap route and chucked in not one but two artificial sweeteners: sucralose and acesulfame. It’s mind-blowingly lazy to not explore the dangerous effects associated with these ingredients that are proven over and over.

When there’s hundreds of billions of turnover at stake, like in the sweetener industry, you can count on tens of billions of marketing, lobby groups, sponsored professors and dedicated associations to solve the problem by spreading misinformation.

This latest announcement from WHO is the perfect example: when clicking on a link to an article written by a leading British publication, there was an advert for an energy drink filled with aspartame nestled right next to the headline warning against this exact kind of product – I wish I was joking.

What followed the announcement was the dedicated associations’ rollout and comments from the secretary general of the International Sweeteners Association – an organization built solely to protect the billion-dollar industry.

This is swiftly followed by the lobby groups claiming that banning artificial sweeteners could mislead the public into consuming more sugar rather than choosing safe no- and low-sugar options. Not a surprising narrative when their salaries are paid for by the sweeteners.

And the cherry on the cake – the expert professor is wheeled out. This time it was professor Kevin McConway – a quick Google shows his pro-sweetener comments in at least four other reports. He is always at hand to say the same thing: “It’s hard to really conclude anything here.”

Well, there is one thing we can conclude: the lobby to keep these artificial sweeteners firmly in our drinks is real. I guess, as always, it will become a David versus Goliath battle. The big dogs fighting to keep them in, Tenzing and a handful of other forward-thinking brands fighting to keep them out. Luckily, science and the new generation are rooting for David.

Huib van Bockel is CEO and founder of Tenzing Natural Energy. We interviewed him way back in 2018 about the launch of his energy drink inspired by the Himalayas.

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