coop soft drinks aisle

Exclusive research for the Grocer reveals supermarkets and suppliers are racing to remove sugar from shelves before the 6 April deadline comes in

Supermarkets and suppliers have slashed sugar levels in soft drinks by more than 15% to escape the looming sugar tax, exclusive research for the Grocer can reveal.

With the levy due to come into force on 6 April, figures from Brand View show a race to remove sugar from the shelves has led to a huge reduction across own-label and brand lineups.

Across the big four, plus Waitrose and Ocado, average sugar fell from 5.9g per 100mg in April 2016 to 5g in February 2018, which coincides with the government’s lower threshold for products liable for the levy.

The figures show that for some supermarkets almost two-thirds of soft drinks they sell will be exempt. The research, which covered over 2,500 lines, suggests most of the sugar removal has been driven by products being delisted and replaced with existing lower sugar variants, rather than reformulation.

Almost 850 products were delisted in the period, nearly four times the number that have been reformulated.

However, since the levy was announced in March 2016, the average sugar content of unique branded lines has fallen from 6.7g to 5.6g/100ml, with nearly 150 products falling out of the firing line of the levy, as many leading companies have taken the axe to the white stuff.

The number of branded drinks in the highest sugar levy band (for products with more than 8g/100ml) has fallen from 401 to 294.

Among big movers AG Barr reformulated 15 of its 45 drinks in the higher band, including Rockstar and Rubicon Sparkling juice drinks.

Coca-Cola reformulated the most products from the lower band to ensure its lines avoid the tax.

Of 29 unique lines that had between 5g and 8g of sugar per 100ml in April 2016, 12 were reformulated to contain less than 5g, including Dr Pepper and Fanta Orange.

Supermarkets led the charge to remove sugar from the shelves with the average sugar content for own label soft drinks falling from 3.2g to just 2.7g.

Morrisons emerged as the supermarket with the least number of soft drinks products exposed to the levy,including both own label and brands, with 65.3% of its range exempt.

It was closely followed by Sainsbury’s (65%) and Sainsbury’s was also the retailer with the lowest proportion of its range (25.8%) due to fall within the higher band of the levy.

However, Tesco, which along with Asda has taken its entire own label range under the levy cut off, saw the greatest percentage increase in the share of exempt lines, with a massive shift from 15.8% to 63.2%. Upmarket retailers Ocado and Waitrose, in contrast, are the supermarkets whose range appears to be most exposed to the levy, with more than 50% of their soft drinks line up still in the firing line.

“The research shows the results of a combination of reformulation, delists and new product developments but range reviews have dominated, strongly outstripping the number of products that have been reformulated,” said Brandview senior insight analyst Chris Elliott.

“Between April 2016 and now, 229 have been reformulated including own label and branded products, whereas 844 have been delisted.”