The EU’s war on sugar

Tightening the belt: Why the EU is reducing its sugar intake, and what it means for the dairy industry

Noncommunicable diseases — medical conditions not caused by infectious agents, such as diabetes and malnutrition — are the leading causes of death globally. In fact, they were responsible for 68% of the world’s 56 million deaths in 2012.  But while the majority of premature deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, this is a universal problem.

The kicker? Many of these deaths could potentially be avoided if those affected had modified their diets or increased their amount of physical activity. 

Now, governments and public health organizations around the world are taking steps to reduce the risks associated with several noncommunicable diseases, including obesity and dental cavities. That’s making people take a close look at how much sugar we eat as a society, and whether taxes could be an appropriate countermeasure for this growing epidemic.


How we got here

In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO), a leading proponent of sugar reduction, recommended reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake in both adults and children. They also recommended a reduced intake of free sugars throughout a person’s lifetime.

You’ll notice, though, that free sugars are mentioned specifically. What are these sugars, and how are they different from other kinds of sugars?

Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, chef or consumer. This category also includes the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

On the other hand, the term intrinsic sugars refers to those incorporated within the structure of intact fruits and vegetables. And different still are those sugars naturally present in milk, lactose and galactose. Because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consumption of either intrinsic sugars or milk sugars, the WHO’s 10% guideline focuses solely on the effect of free sugars intake.


Creating sugar-reduction goals for the EU

Based in part of the WHO recommendations, the European Union (EU) created Annex II of the EU Framework for National Initiatives on Selected Nutrients on added sugars. This annex, created in 2015, is in line with WHO’s recommendation, and sets a goal for EU members states to reach the 10% sugar reduction by 2020. 

Now, a number of EU member states have established recommendations for added sugars as less or not more than 10% of a person’s total energy intake. Other individual member states recommend higher or lower maximum intakes such as 15 and 5%.

Of course, given the WHO report, changes to certain foods would have a higher health impact than others. That’s why the annex lists a number of food categories — or, you might say, the biggest offenders — where member states should focus their efforts. The list includes more than a dozen categories, ranging from breakfast cereals to savory snacks. But the dairy related items are:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Sugar-sweetened dairy and dairy imitates
  • Sugar-sweetened desserts, ice cream and toppings

The annex also details some of the implications for this recommendation. For instance, it acknowledges that sugars not only provide sweetness, but also add bulk to foods. To compensate, other carbohydrates should be considered as sugar replacements, since replacing sugars with fats could result in higher caloric content.

When that’s not possible, and for products that should only be eaten sparingly, the annex suggests reducing portion or package sizes instead.


Empowering EU consumers

The EU legislative framework also encourages member states to use consumer awareness, education and information campaigns to create buy-in from consumers. The ultimate goal of this effort would be not only to create consumer demand for products with lower sugar content, but also to encourage healthy eating and healthy lifestyles in general. 

Getting consumers onboard with the goal will be key to the success of the initiative. That’s also why, in some cases, the transition to lower sugar amounts is being done gradually — allowing consumers’ palates to adjust to the changing flavors and textures. This also gives food and beverage producers a chance to adjust their formulations to those that will be better accepted by the market.

Additionally, the inequalities of socio-economic groups should be considered. Since lower socio-economic groups are often compelled to buy lower-priced products, it’s important that those products receive as much attention as those at higher prices and margins.


Engaging the entire supply chain

While food and beverage producers are critical to this entire process, the rest of the supply chain will also play an important role. After all, the link between consumers and producers will be the retailers and distributors of reduced-sugar products.

As the annex notes, retailers are particularly relevant as they market their own brands and are decision makers on where and how products are placed in the supermarket. They also have a hand in promoting reformulated products and smaller portion sizes.

Distributors, caterers and restaurants, though, are also stakeholders who can have an impact by carrying reduced-sugar products in lieu of their previous offerings. 


The state of the war on sugar

The same year that the WHO released its recommendations, the United Kingdom announced sugar taxes as part of its budget to be implemented in 2018. But they were far from the first. In fact, Mexico and Finland were among the countries to slap excise taxes on sugar-added drinks in 2014.

More would follow. In 2015, Chile and three other countries targeted sugar-sweetened beverages specifically, and 2016 saw Belgium and Norway join the fray. And, in 2017, nine countries, including France, Portugal and Spain, levied additional taxes on added sugars or sweeteners.

Today, 29 countries, including seven U.S. states, have implemented some form of sugar tax. The taxation schemes differ and have had mixed results, though not enough time has passed since implementation to truly gauge the outcomes. 

Consumer tastes, however, may already be changing. According to the 13th Annual Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation, Washington, 59% of respondents said they have a very or somewhat negative perception of added sugars, with almost a third (32%) having developed a much more or somewhat more negative attitude during the past year.2


Taking advantage of the trends

So, for producers of dairy foods and beverages, what does this all mean?

Amid global trends like healthier living and natural foods, the movement to reduce sugar consumption fits neatly into a consumer pattern that has been developing for at least the last 5 years. And it’s one that the dairy industry may be poised to take advantage of, given the right strategy and a willingness to innovate.

Some, in fact, are already riding the low-sugar wave. Take, for instance, Halo Top, whose sugar-free, low fat ice cream became the top selling ice cream product in the U.S. in 2017.3 

According to market intelligence agency Mintel, there will continue to be a demand for greater transparency and trust among items such as desserts. Because of this, the global dessert market is likely to see a continued focus around authenticity and naturalness.

For producers of dairy-derived foods and beverages, this may represent opportunity to make use of existing milk sugar. Popular strategies of reducing sugar content currently including reformulation, promoting naturally occurring fruit sugars or by formulating with sweeteners.

But another option is to use naturally occurring enzymes, which break down lactose into glucose and galactose. Because these monosaccharides are both sweeter than the original carbohydrate, this process both increases sweetness and helps those producers avoid using sweeteners. This helps enable them to keep a clean label, too.


Looking toward 2020

While 2020 may be the self-imposed deadline for many countries’ sugar reduction targets, that date is beginning to seem less like the finish line and more like the end of the first half. Proactive producers are trying to deliver low-sugar innovation as fast as possible, and consumer tastes are already changing. Now, it’s up to the dairy industry keep pace.

Want to learn more?

Read our other articles about the trend toward sugar reduction in dairy foods and beverages.


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