The soft drinks industry must fight questions over the safety of artificial sweeteners as they become the focus of a new chapter in the war on sugar, BSDA president Peter Harding has warned.
Speaking at the BSDA’s annual lunch in London, the Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS) boss said he feared a looming World Health Organization report on the health impact of sweeteners would derail the reformulation efforts made by companies such as AG Barr, Coca-Cola and his own company. LRS has removed 50% of added sugar from its fizzy drinks in the past year, he said.
The report, due out later this year, is set to switch the focus of the health debate away from sugar to the use of sweeteners, which has risen dramatically in the soft drinks industry.
“We’ve spent millions of pounds on research and development,” Harding told soft drinks bosses. “Our efforts are working. Sugar intake from soft drinks is down 17% since 2013.”
However, he said concern over sugar had “now given way to concern over sweeteners”.
“We know that the World Health Organization in involved in another consultation. But these concerns are not based on science or data. And they run against the grain and the efforts of our sector in reducing sugar.
“We need to continue working with the government and the Department of Health to emphasise the beneficial role that sweeteners can play in reducing sugar content. I think our progress shows we can be trusted to do the right thing.”
In November last year, research by The Grocer found sweeteners had overtaken sugar and were almost as common as fruit juice in soft drinks.
The list of sweeteners was headed by the three artificial ingredients acesulfame, aspartame and sucralose, which are all likely to come under scrutiny in the WHO report.
The drinks industry fears the WHO report on sweeteners could have a similar impact as its investigation into sugar, which shaped UK government policy and prompted the subsequent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition report.
The WHO report follows other, less high-profile claims about the potential dangers of sweeteners.
Last summer, a report published in the JAMA Pediatrics Journal found that consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with increased infant body mass index and a doubling in the risk of being overweight in early childhood.
Another study by researchers at York University, Canada, found obese people who consumed artificial sweeteners had worse glucose management than those who did not, predisposing them to type 2 diabetes.
Last month, a study by scientist from the University of Adelaide in Australia also claimed artificial sweeteners may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
However, the study was small and the detailed results have not yet been published. Drinks industry bosses say fears over sweeteners fly in the face of previous findings by regulatory bodies such as EFSA, including its ruling in 2013 on aspartame declaring it was safe.
One drinks industry source said: “We fear that the WHO report is likely to be very political and not based on the science. If it is about scaremongering consumers then it could be a major blow for companies that have invested millions taking sugar out of products.”
Campaign groups including Action on Sugar and Public Heath England have both called for sweeteners to be reduced in the future.
Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of AOS, said replacing sugar with sweeteners is “not the answer”, having claimed “we need to reduce overall sweetness so people’s tastes can adjust to having less sweet drinks.”