Consumer fears over sugar and sweeteners are prompting new product development and reformulations

Soft drinks have been lambasted for rotting children's teeth, causing hyperactivity and obesity - although presumably not at the same time - and for filling people full of chemicals.

Most recently some have been accused of allowing benzene to slip into the mix (see p12).

British Soft Drinks Association public affairs manager Richard Laming says that the industry is very responsive to these kinds of consumer concerns.

"A few years ago there was a trend away from certain colourings, such as tartrazine, and the industry acted. Broadly speaking they have been removed," he says.

"The soft drinks industry is very close to its consumers and it listens and responds to their concerns."

According to Laming, the industry takes action even when those concerns are ill-founded.

"All ingredients are used for a purpose. People don't use something just for the sake of it. If there are alternatives available to the ingredients consumers are concerned about, some companies will switch to them, even if there is little basis for those concerns," he says.

There has been a great deal of negative press about the nasties in soft drinks - sugar, sweeteners, colourings, flavourings and preservatives - a list that incorporates almost all the products' ingredients.

The Sunny D brand, for example bears the scars of media furore over its ingredients and, despite subsequent healthier reformulations, sales have been in freefall for the past few years.

It is difficult to see how soft drinks companies can win when they are criticised for producing sugary drinks and criticised for producing alternatives using sweeteners.

"Health is an important issue," says GlaxoSmithKline sales strategy and category planning director Colin Seymour. "However, what constitutes healthy means different things to different people. Some people want no-sugar products, others prefer sugar on the grounds that it is a natural product. We have to understand consumers' different points of view and offer them informed choices through a range of products."

The BSDA's Laming echoes this view: "People have many different types of concerns - that's partly why there are so many different products," he says.

Laming believes that some ingredients will be replaced in the future, but others will continue to be defended on the grounds that they are scientifically proven to be safe and perform very useful functions within the products. "Market growth in the past 20 years has been in drinks using sweeteners," he adds.

Britvic marketing director Andrew Marsden points out that the much-maligned, supposedly carcinogenic aspartame is one of the most researched of any food ingredients and also that the industry regards it as one of the safest.

"It is the basis for most of the no-sugar products, which are playing a greater role across the category," he says.

In line with other food and drink products, health considerations are changing the way consumers behave in the soft drinks category. Somerfield category buyer for soft drinks, John Place, says the effects are obvious. "Consumers are clearly changing their shopping habits, buying what they perceive to be healthier products," he says.

Certainly, the water, flavoured water, juice, juice drinks, functional, better-for-you and no-added-sugar sectors are benefiting most from the trend.

Many mainstream brands have sought to enhance their health credentials by improving formulations to include more juice or exclude artificial additives, but some believe that they have not yet done enough.

"New product development and reformulations have signalled a step forward, but too many big brands and manufacturers are tinkering around the edges," explains Place.

"While trying to protect existing portfolios, manufacturers will need new brands to really deliver the right solutions," he says.

Read more
Focus on Soft Drinks (May 2006)