In the constant push and pull that represents the public campaign for a healthier UK, the latest target has become glaringly obvious. Open up a newspaper or a magazine, or take a look at the latest British government legislation, and it’s clear that sugar has taken over from fat as public enemy number one. Sugar; we’re told, is ‘the new tobacco’, a primary cause of a crisis level obesity epidemic, and a factor in everything from diabetes and cancer to a fatty liver as national intake of sugar rises to dangerous new highs. No wonder so many of us have considered capping our sweet tooth. But is this panic warranted?

The UK government is certainly on board: Following in the footsteps of Mexico in 2014, the recent announcement of a UK sugar tax on soft drinks from 2018 has thrust the conversation into the limelight – and taken the soft-drinks industry by surprise. With proposals for advertising regulations and store promotion clampdowns as well, it looks like the sugar panic isn’t going away any time soon – and soft drinks brands may have a rocky road ahead. So how do brands ride out the panic that now seems inevitable? A few guiding principles can help to stay in front of the public-health wave. Even if – as we’ll see – the situation isn’t quite as black-and-white, or quite as gloomy, as the headlines claim.

Truth decay

The implication of a tax on sugar is that consumption of the white stuff is at an all-time high – or at least fairly close to one. But as data from the Food and Agricultural Organisations of the United Nations shows, sugar consumption in the UK has actually fallen by around 20% since the1960s. Even in the USA, which we so often think of as the top of the sugary pyramid, consumption has fallen back to the levels of the1980s after peaking around the millennium. So if sugar consumption has fallen, why the panic?

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One reason often given for public outcry is that the UK faces an obesity epidemic caused, in part, by sugar consumption. The common perception is that obesity – the state of being overweight with high body fat – is increasing at a dramatic, even astronomical, rate. Take, for example, a January 2016 news article in The Guardian titled ‘Childhood obesity “an exploding nightmare”, says health expert’. Adult obesity statistics may not be dropping, but neither are they rising at a significant rate. Over the last decade the percentage of obese men in England has hovered around the 22-24% mark, with similar numbers for women.

But what about the kids? Is childhood obesity ‘exploding’? The UK sugar tax is, after all, designed as part of a strategy to tackle this explosion. It seems the obesity rates for children tell a similar, non-astronomically increasing story. After a peak around 2004/2005 the rate has actually dropped. In 2004, 19 per cent of boys aged between 2 and 15 in England were classed as obese; in 2013, this figure was down three points to 16 per cent.

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All of this is in rather stark contrast to the government’s own 2007 report predicting the growth of obesity, which stated: ‘The extrapolation of current trends… indicates that, by 2015, 36% of males and 28% of females will be obese. By 2025, these figures are estimated to rise to 47% and 36% respectively. By 2050, 60% of males and 50% of females could be obese.’ But obesity is still, of course, a problem in the UK, even if not quite as great a problem as we’re sometimes led to believe. Whether or not sugar is to blame is another question. Obesity is a result of excess body fat accumulation, which occurs when our energy intake is greater than our energy expenditure over a period of time. So all we need to do is balance our calorie intake with how much we are burning. Sounds simple right?

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Biologically it is that simple, but there are, of course, many factors that influence our ability to do it. The obesity map created by shiftN as part of the 2007 government Foresight project, shows a complex web of societal and biological factors that equates to 100 variables directly or indirectly effecting our vulnerability to weight gain. Variables include, psychology both individual and social, attitudes towards physical activity both individual and environmental, as well as food consumption. As you can see the issue of obesity is very complex with many influencing factors and variables, far bigger than just one ingredient.

Obesity isn’t the only disease for which sugar sometimes takes the rap. Because type-2 diabetes is related to obesity, and because diabetes is a problem in regulating blood glucose – a kind of sugar – there is a common misconception that sugar causes it. Obesity, along with age, genetics and ethnicity, can be an important risk factor in developing type-2 diabetes. But type-2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain a normal blood glucose level or when the cells don’t react properly to insulin – so while diabetes is about sugar, sugar has no direct link to causing it. But the confusion is prevalent enough that Diabetes UK has a webpage titled ‘Myth: Sugar causes diabetes’ that says, ‘we know sugar doesn’t directly causes Type 2 diabetes’.

Sweet relief

Despite the indirect nature of sugar’s link to obesity, and the lack of any direct connection to other problems such as type-2 diabetes, we can be fairly sure that the crackdown on sugar isn’t going away. The bad press and government warnings will certainly lead to consumer confusion, testing brand loyalty. But there are things brands can do to help win back the heart of the consumer and inspire them to not only buy, but to trust, even in the coming storm. Here are three principles for beverage and other brands to keep in mind, to ride out the sugar panic:

Transparency

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Consumers are more health-conscious and ingredient-aware than ever before. As a result of this, transparency is key to gaining consumers trust and showing dedication to their needs. In this case, transparency is about being honest and open about what’s in the product, without being defensive or accepting blame. The ‘sports fuel’ company Gatorade does this by embracing its sugar content, positioning it as a key energy source for both exercise and recovery. Being on the defensive can look guilty in the eyes of the consumer and lead to a loss of trust and, therefore, sales. To avoid this, sugar content should be clearly communicated with sugar being positioned as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle, reassuring the consumer that the product can still be enjoyed. But transparency needn’t be boring: semiotics can play a huge role in pack design, using clever material finishes and graphic styles to make your point. All communication should be done cross-channel in a clear manner that represents the brand and allows consumers to make better informed decisions at the checkout.

Choice

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Every consumer has different needs, making it important to offer choice and variety. The most obvious choice to offer in the beverage industry is a low calorie or zero-sugar variant, allowing consumers to get the taste they want without the sugar. Many companies offer this variant, with Lucozade being the most recent to add a no-sugar offering to its portfolio with Lucozade Zero. Offering choice and variety doesn’t have to be limited to just formulation or flavour variants, it also pays to have a range of pack sizes. The shift to smaller servings has allowed certain consumers to enjoy their favourite product but in a format suited to their lifestyle. Examples of this include Coca-Cola 250ml cans and Red Bull Energy Shots. For choice to work all products need to be readily available and consumers need to know about their options. This can be hard with large portfolios as advertising and stocking become challenges. The key is finding the right portfolio balance that works for both the company and the customer while allowing the consumer to make a decision that suits them.

Innovation

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Sugar taxes are designed to pressure beverage companies to reformulate their sugary drinks to drop into a lower tax band. The default response is to attempt to reduce sugar without changing the flavour to much, if at all. However, this is an opportunity to do more than just reduce sugar. This is an opportunity to innovate and invest in what your brand stands for. It’s a chance to take a step back and review your brand’s core meaning in this new context, and reposition and express that new meaning. Design plays a crucial role during this phase and can help change or enhance the meaning of a product. Coca-Cola is a recent example of this with their innovation in the stevia sweetened Coca-Cola Life. Instead of just cutting sugar content Coca-Cola Life was built from the ground up with stevia in mind, creating a product that has the taste consumers expect from Coke but with less sugar and no artificial sweeteners. In doing this Coca-Cola opened up a new segment of the market for consumers who want a lower-calorie drink without having to consume artificial sweeteners.

Recap on sugar tax