Beverage firms pledge to reduce sugar in drinks but experts say bar is too low

Do you know how much sugar there is in popular local drinks? The amount might surprise you.

But some experts call for higher bar as many drinks are already at acceptable levels

From 2020, most prepacked drinks ranging from fizzy sodas to juice drinks sold in Singapore will be less sweet, following a pledge by seven major beverage companies to reduce sugar in their products.

The industry pact, believed to be the first of its kind here, will see sugar content being capped at 12 per cent, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said yesterday.

This works out to 12g of sugar for every 100ml. It means that a typical 330ml canned drink would contain at most 40g of sugar.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends that people should consume no more than 40g to 55g of added sugar a day. An HPB spokesman added that the companies can reformulate drinks that contain too much sugar, or take them off the local market.

The substantive impact of the industry pledge would be limited, though. Most of the seven companies said the majority of their drinks already fall within the 12 per cent limit, with three - F&N Foods, Malaysia Dairy Industries and Nestle - saying all their drinks contain no more than 12 per cent sugar.

The move by industry players underscores a concerted effort to get the nation healthier, following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally last Sunday. He devoted a third of his speech to the fight against diabetes, and said the new measure would be a first step in tackling the problem of soft drink and sugar consumption.

The seven players, said MOH, provide 70 per cent of the prepacked sugar-sweetened drinks sold here.

The other firms are Yeo Hiap Seng, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola Singapore and Pokka. Among their products that are especially high in sugar are A&W Sarsaparilla, Pokka Soursop Juice Drink and Kickapoo.

 
 
 
 

The amount of sugar the average Singaporean consumes via these drinks is significant: More than 1,500 teaspoons, or over 7kg, a year.

"This move could potentially reduce sugar consumption by about 300,000 kg per year," said MOH.

According to its statistics, 60 per cent of Singaporeans' total sugar intake comes from sugary beverages, including soft drinks and juices, as well as coffee and tea.

The firms did not respond to queries on whether the changes will have an impact on prices, although one, Yeo's, said it had not passed on the costs of replacing sugar with natural substitutes.

Some experts said the bar for the companies should be set even higher, given that many products already fall within the acceptable range. Sugar levels in Coca-Cola Classic, for example, are at 10.6 per cent. "If Coke is already at that level, let's challenge companies to reduce sugar even further," said dietitian Jaclyn Reutens of Aptima Nutrition and Sports Consultants.

Mr Derrick Ong, a dietitian at Eat Right Nutrition Consultancy, said he is "slightly disappointed" by the news.

Canned and packet drinks are not the only high-sugar beverages to watch out for, warned Ms Liow Min Choo, a dietitian at PanAsia Surgery Group. Drinks made on the spot such as tea, coffee or fresh juices are often very sweet too.

"My bugbear is fruit juices - you have a lot of cold-pressed or organic juices and nobody bats an eyelid because they are natural. But they can contain a lot of sugar."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Major beverage firms pledge to reduce sugar in drinks'. Print Edition | Subscribe