The move towards sweeter drinks has to be kept in check

The move towards sweeter drinks has to be kept in check

With the trend for sweet flavours sweeping most drinks categories, it seems an obvious path for producers to follow. But with obesity now a major public health concern, will this rush for short-term gain lead to long-term pain? Just-drinks' deputy editor James Wilmore sounds the alarm. 

Around five years ago, during a one-to-one lunch with a senior UK drinks industry figure, I heard an opinion that has stayed with me ever since.

As the waiter poured us our second glass of Sauvignon Blanc, my dining companion proferred this: “The biggest mistake the (UK) industry has made in the last 20 years is producing alcopops. Or, allowing the media to coin the phrase.”

What he went on to explain was the problem of being seen to market sweet drinks to children. As many of you will know, the trade has always shied away from allowing these types of drinks to be referred to in this way. Instead, they are known as RTDs (ready-to-drinks), or FABs (flavoured alcoholic beverages).

This dislike of the term alcopop stems from scathing tabloid newspaper coverage in the 1990s, when the drinks were effectively portrayed as replacing ecstasy as "the next great threat" to the nation’s youth. Some even called for an outright ban. 

Politicians, meanwhile, have often threatened to hike taxes on alcopops, including David Cameron in 2009, but nothing has ever come of it.  

I was reminded of my ‘alcopops’ lunch during a Mintel presentation on the state of the wine industry at last month's London International Wine Fair (LIWF). Analyst Jonny Forsyth questioned whether the industry was evolving fast enough to capitalise on the "sweet tooth" generation. He suggested that in Western Europe perceptions of sweet wine were still too negative, but in the US it is the younger generation that is driving this sub-category forward and helping lift the overall industry. 

But the Mintel man also offered some startling facts about sugar. The average American now consumes 130lbs of sugar per year compared to 20lbs in 1820. Farmers are even growing sweeter carrots, onions and tomatoes to satisfy these cravings. 

Meanwhile, in Britain, sugar consumption has risen 31% since 1990. 

He also noted how ingredients such as chocolate are infiltrating all different types of products now, such as chicken ready-meals and packaged pizzas.

"There is greater sugar consumption among this generation than any before," Forsyth said. "And physiologically, younger adults prefer sweeter food and drink." 

But, crucially, he added: "Alcohol is an acquired taste." 

And, there's the rub. 

I am of a generation where my first experience of alcohol was wine and beer that on those initial occassions tasted unpalatable. Of course, there were experiments with cider, but I don't think that really defined how I acquired a taste for alcohol. 

So, in this age where public health is becoming an ever greater concern of governments and administrations around the world, is a rush to produce sweet alcohol that appeals to young people necessarily a good idea? 

Yes, drinks firms can't ignore emerging trends. But, at the same time, at the risk of sounding like a health lobbyist, alcohol is no ordinary product. 

Sweet wines are a different prospect to other categories, but what concerns me is the overall direction of travel towards sweeter drinks, in all categories. 

With soft drinks well and truly under the radar in the US and UK, it can only be a matter of time before questions are asked about the sugar content in alcoholic drinks, particularly flavoured spirits. 

My lunchtime dining colleague of yesteryear would no doubt have something so say about that.