Cola obesity infographic

Fizzy drinks have been the fall guy in the fight against obesity in the UK. But new research by The Grocer reveals just how limited the impact of sugary soft drinks is on the nation’s waistline.

Despite being Europe’s fattest country, with 28.1% of Brits classed as obese in 2014 (WHO), consumption of full-sugar cola was significantly lower than in than many other European countries. On average Brits drank 25.1 litres per head per year in 2015, [Euromonitor], the sixth highest per capita consumption in Europe.

The highest consumption levels were in Belgium, with 42.5 litres of full-sugar cola per capita. Yet Belgium has one of Europe’s lowest obesity rates at 20.2%, The Grocer’s analysis found.

The figures will add fuel to suggestions George Osborne’s new sugar levy is unfairly singling out soft drinks while doing little to solve the UK’s obesity crisis.

The chancellor’s reasoning was focused largely on childhood obesity, but soft drinks industry experts claim the link between fizzy drinks and obesity is not backed by evidence.

Sigrid Ligné, director general of the European soft drinks trade body UNESDA said: “Singling out one product and taxing it will not solve the obesity crisis.

“France and Hungary are the only European countries that have maintained such taxes but we’ve seen no data to indicate any positive health impact, such as falling obesity rates.”

France is Western Europe’s second fattest nation, with 23.9% of the population classed as clinically obese, despite cola consumption in France again being far lower than in other European countries, with 21.8 litres consumed per person last year. France introduced a sugar levy on soft drinks in 2012.

However, health lobbyists reject the idea that a lack of correlation between obesity and soft drinks consumption casts doubt over how effective the soft drinks tax will be in addressing Britain’s weight problem.

“Nobody in their right mind thinks that you can impose a soft drinks tax and suddenly obesity will be solved,” said Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign. 

“A sugar drinks tax is one of many levers you can pull. We are consuming three times as much sugar as is recommended and sugary soft drinks is a factor in what’s making us fat. And a sugary drinks tax isn’t just about obesity; it’s about dental health and type two diabetes.

Our research also suggests there is no correlation, positive or negative, between consumption of diet cola and obesity. Britain has the largest diet cola market in Europe. Brits drank 24.7 litres last year, the third most after the Norwegians and the Belgians. UK sales for the on and off-trade grew 0.6% on volumes up 0.4%; regular cola sales fell 1.4% on volumes down 1.7%.

“The latest government figures show that the number of consumers switching to low and no calorie varieties has been growing over the last 10 years,” said Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association. “In fact, we’re the only food and drink category which has consistently reduced sugar intake in recent years - 13.6% since 2012.”