Tesco will withdraw full-sugar variants of Capri-Sun, Ribena and Rubicon from its childrens soft drinks offering

Tesco will withdraw full-sugar variants of Capri-Sun, Ribena and Rubicon from its children's soft drinks offering

This month, Drinksinfo's Ray Rowlands looks at UK supermarket chain Tesco's decision to pull certain soft drinks brands from its shelves.

Last month drew to a close with the unexpected announcement that Tesco has become the self-appointed judge, jury and executioner in the case against sugar. In a measure aimed at tackling the problem of obesity, the UK supermarket chain has decided to delist several ready-to-drink juice brands - those with a high sugar content and sold in pack sizes ranging from 15cl cartons up to 30cl bottles - that are aimed at children.

A number of well-known brands, including full-sugar versions of Capri-Sun, ready-to-drink Ribena, and Rubicon will be affected.

The retailer will continue to sell the "no-added sugar" versions of the drinks as well as larger bottles of the sweetened brands. These are supposedly aimed more at adults although, needless to say, they are also consumed by juveniles. The retailer has also pledged a commitment to cut the sugar content in its own-label drinks by 5% year-on-year.

Single-serve packs of regular soda, such as those from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, do not feature in the initiative, although they sell far more than all three named juice drink brands combined.

Readers will need to make up their own minds whether this is because such drinks are not considered a threat to child wellbeing or whether there is an unspoken, more politically-motivated, reason behind their immunity. In essence, Tesco is only partially reducing the shelf space given over to sugary drinks; a symbolic move then rather than an outright ban.

The axe will fall on 7 September, with the shelf space previously given over to the aforementioned drinks either being taken up by low-calorie variants of these brands or by Tesco's (higher margin) no added-sugar own label products. The timing of the move is to coincide with the start of the Autumn academic term. The kiddies still have the opportunity to over-indulge during the remainder of the Summer holidays, at least.

Do you spot any flaws in Tesco's approach? I am, and I am not alone. Many Tesco customers, who have queried this partial ban on some of their favourite soft drinks, have questioned, not just the absence of sodas in this initiative, but also why other high-sugar content items such as cakes, crisps, sweets and ketchup are unaffected. Some might say that it is laudable that the UK’s biggest retailer is at least making an effort to encourage its customers to follow healthier lifestyle choices (albeit to a limited degree). Or, maybe this is just one phase of a longer-term strategy. Indeed, Tesco has been quoted as saying it is just part of its ten-point plan against obesity.

With around one-in-five of the UK's children being classified as obese, the Tesco campaign has been openly welcomed by health campaigners. A recent British Medical Association report on children’s diets had also called for a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. But, Tesco’s move has provoked a backlash from actual consumers, not only because of its selective approach but because many people are wary of the artificial sweeteners used in place of sugar in low-calorie products. Some of these sweeteners have had to deal with well-publicised health queries. Even the up-and-coming, naturally-based sweetener stevia is fighting against claims of a bitter after-taste.

A large element of the British public, then, is clearly unhappy with Tesco's latest initiative. This may be bad news for Tesco, but it is good news for competing supermarkets. Chains like Asda and Sainsbury's will surely welcome this new development with open arms. After all, the UK grocery market is sluggish at best at the moment, and Tesco's decision offers them the opportunity to gain market share and increase customer footfall, at least in the short-term.

And yet, Tesco could be viewed as a trend-setter, as it was when it first unveiled plans to cut the sugar in its own-label sodas and juice drinks in 2013. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s subsequently followed its lead and, as recently as January this year, Asda revealed that it was removing 814 tonnes of sugar from its own-label soft drinks by May.

It may not be that long before Tesco's main competition again follow suit and begin to ban branded high-sugar soft drinks, if only to keep in line with the growing health movement. Remember, Britvic did something similar in January, when it announced the axing of all full-sugar lines in its Robinsons squash range.

Health campaigners have already called on other supermarkets to follow Tesco’s example. However, it might well benefit both retailers and producers alike to wait and see if the UK Government imposes a sugar tax, a move which is growing more likely.

What happens in the UK, of course, does not necessarily stay in the UK. With soft drinks still squarely in the sights of health bodies around the world, what's to say that other retailers around the world won't try to do their bit for the public's health? No matter how unpopular, misplaced or haphazard.