The soft drinks industry has been the target of a damning report

The soft drinks industry has been the target of a damning report

The soft drinks industry has responded with some ire to a study from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, US.

The comprehensive study, conducted over a 30-year period surveying more than 600,000 people, suggests that ‘fizzy drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sweetened ice teas or homemade sugary drinks’ are responsible for as many as 184,000 deaths each year. If Google is correct and 56m people die globally each year then soft drinks account for 0.3% of the total. That is quite an allegation to make.

Of course the industry has protested its innocence and stated that no actual link between the consumption of soft drinks and chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer has been properly demonstrated in the study.

That response is understandable but a more robust defensive strategy that illustrates that proactive and positive changes are being made by the industry in response to the concerns raised is needed. The case for the defence needs to be eloquently communicated because soft drink operators around the world are under more scrutiny than ever before.

The first and most powerful riposte should be that in the developed world, which naturally has the highest per capita rates for soft drinks, the consumption of the soft drinks categories highlighted as being ‘perilous’ is actually falling. Using beverage research agency Canadean’s Wisdom database, if you take Australasia, North America and Western Europe adding in Japan for good measure, then you can see that the consumption of carbonated soft drinks, juice drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and iced teas is shrinking.

Maybe you can even conclude that the 184,000 annual deaths accredited to soft drinks globally could be falling as a result.

According to Canadean, last year, in the developed markets covered, the drink categories in the dock declined by 1.3% and in the last ten years have contracted by almost 2%. Since the end of the time period of the study, 2010, these drinks have dropped by 3%, so the rate of loss would appear to be accelerating. With the population growing that means that per capita is falling even more quickly.

Admittedly, North America accounts for much of the losses but last year Australasia, North America and Western Europe and Japan all saw sales volumes fall.

The importance of stevia

What is not so encouraging is that although light or low-calorie drinks in these categories have expanded by 9% in ten years, since the survey was concluded five years ago, this segment has fallen back by 4%.

Rising low-calorie sales were something that producers of soft drinks could hide behind when the critics of soft drinks became particularly vocal. Importantly, Canadean’s figures do not, however, include drinks sweetened by the natural sweetener stevia.

Canadean definitions class low-calorie drinks as having a calorie content of 20 or less per 100ml and products that utilise stevia often still have a calorie content of more than half of regular sugar-sweetened drinks. Lowering calorie content to any extent is a key tool for soft drink players and the role of stevia in countering the negative arguments from the critics of soft drinks will become more and more important. It is for this reason that there has been an explosion in the use of stevia in new product development in the last few years. It is no surprise that Coke Life has been one of the biggest launches for years.

Exercise your rights

The study is harsh to just consider the impact of soft drinks consumption alone in the deterioration of consumers' health and well-being. A lack of exercise is a major factor behind some of the diseases put forward in the study and you could argue that Super Mario is also very much liable with the dramatic rise in home-based games consoles encouraging inactivity, not just in children but increasingly in adults.

Coca-Cola has been quick to promote exercise and is a founding corporate partner of Exercise is Medicine (EIM). I also like Coca-Cola's Work it out Calculator. The calculator puts forward exercises that enable people to burn off the calories that they have just consumed after drinking a Coke product. The industry needs to do more of the same.

I have said it before but soft drinks companies really need to shift their emphasis away from volume to value. Value is after all what makes profit. The obvious way to achieve this is to reduce the unit sizes of the drinks that they sell. If they can successfully downsize their packs then this will play a key part in cutting calories and give their public relations departments’ valuable ammunition with which to orchestrate their defence.

It is after all not really good enough to just respond to a devastating report effectively saying ‘prove it’. Actions will help win the argument and ensure that the industry will be more immune from taxes, labelling regulations, bans or other legislation. Inaction will just allow people to make comparisons with the tobacco industry.