The View from A Farr – Industry ahead of the game on additives
While the soft drinks industry was relieved that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did not find a major study on the effect additives have on children's behaviour to be grounds for a change in regulations, for Annette Farr the media interest generated only serves to confirm the way the wind is blowing. Soft drinks brands are already responding to changing consumer demands, and the trend towards natural and functional products shows no sign of diminishing.
There was little or no fanfare surrounding the much-awaited review by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) of the Southampton University study into the effect of certain food additives on children's behaviour, published in The Lancet last September.
The study, which had been commissioned by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), showed that controversial e-numbers and the preservative sodium benzoate, which are used in the production of some soft drinks, increased hyperactivity and decreased attention span in a wide range of children.
The furore surrounding the study was sufficient for many brands and retailers to reduce the amount of additives used in food and drink products, or remove them altogether to pursue the 'all-natural' route.
Yet EFSA declared on 14 March that the study's findings could not be used as a basis for changing the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for the additives concerned. Following examination by its Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food, EFSA said: "Considering the overall weight of evidence and in view of the considerable uncertainties, such as the lack of consistency and relative weakness of the effect and the absence of information on the clinical significance of the behavioural changes observed, the Panel concluded that the findings of the McCann et al. study could not be used as a basis for altering the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate.
"Among the limitations of the new study, was the inability to pinpoint which additives may have been responsible for the effects observed in the children given that mixtures and not individual additives were tested."
Given the extensive media coverage following publication of the Southampton study, had EFSA ruled in the direction of banning the flavours and additives under investigation then the artificial flavours and preservatives debate would again be headline news.
So EFSA's ruling brought a sigh of relief to the soft drinks industry. But industry representatives also point out that soft drinks manufacturers are in any event acting to assuage concerns over these ingredients by changing formulations, as the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) pointed out in its response to EFSA's review.
"All ingredients used by the soft drinks industry are approved as safe in use by the Food Standards Agency," the BSDA said. "Soft drinks manufacturers have for some time been responding to the public's increasing desire for more 'natural' ingredients and a wide variety of beverages are now available to meet this need, and innovation in this area is ongoing."
'All-natural' and 'free from' declarations have become the watchwords in developing new soft drinks and adapting traditional brand formulas. This is not a pattern confined to the UK as Paul Carrington, marketing and communications director at Nielsen, confirms. "The health and wellbeing trend is evident across the globe, shaping consumer demand in countries as far apart as the USA and Australia," he says. "The UK consumer is already there and soft drinks manufacturers have evolved as a result."
Carrington further points out that innovation will be vital in meeting consumers' multiple demands in the future. And this is at the core of the challenge facing soft drinks manufacturers: an understanding of the mercurial nature of consumers. As Paul Moody, CEO of UK soft drinks producer Britvic, puts it: "The quality of our industry's performance depends ultimately on the quality of our insight into the consumer's heart, mind and tastes."
His sentiments are echoed by Michael Bellas, chairman and CEO of Beverage Marketing Corporation in the US. "One size does not fit all in today's beverage marketplace," Bellas says. "Consumers now want different beverages at different times and for different reasons, whether it's an energy boost during the work day or reinvigoration after a workout. Functional and enhanced beverages are growing considerably faster than conventional refreshment beverages and will continue to do so moving forward."
Those who think functionality in the industry has plateaued will have to revise their opinion. The fact that nearly all soft drink producers have revised or are developing new recipes which use natural ingredients is evidence of the industry's ability to adapt and change, living up to its FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) nomenclature. Mother Nature has taken its course: consumers want to drink with health in mind and the soft drinks industry has responded.
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