Bittersweet infamy

They’re calling it a ticking time-bomb, the hidden menace and the new nicotine – as addictive and dangerous as cigarettes.

No, it’s not alcohol – this time the health lobbyists are targeting sugar.

Until recently, soft drinks looked like the most innocent products on off-licence shelves.

Today they’re being blamed for everything from obesity to Kelly Osbourne’s recent seizure. Health lobbies are calling for a tax on soft drinks, the government’s Change4Life has targeted them in its advertising and medical professionals have created anti-sugar pressure group Action on Sugar.

You could almost forgive retailers, already under pressure for the way they sell alcohol and tobacco, if they threw in the towel and said soft drinks were one blacklisted product too many.

But they’d be throwing the baby out with the bath water, because soft drinks sales are on the rise and there are plenty of ways retailers can show how responsible they are.

The latest figures from the British Soft Drinks Association show soft drinks sales were worth £15 billion in 2012, up 3.3% from the year before. Volume consumption slipped 2.5% to 14 billion litres.

That trend continued in 2013, with bottled water and energy drinks the fastest-growing sectors of the market, according to the BSDA.

Producers and multiple grocers are taking the lead in responsible retailing. Tesco is cutting sugar by 25% in its own-brand soft drinks, with a view to slashing 2 billion calories from its range in a year. Sainsbury’s cut sugar in its own-brand squashes as part of the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal and a number of producers have cut sugar and calories from their brands. Marketing is tightly controlled.

Red Bull has launched a zero- calorie variant in the burgeoning “functional” energy category, which has helped drive sports and energy drinks sales to some £1.1 billion, according to IRI.

Head of category marketing Gavin Lissimore says: “Red Bull Zero Calories is the second low-calorie product we have brought to the UK market. This is an exciting piece of activity for us to deliver against consumer health concerns.”

Graham Carr-Smith, founder of Qcumber, a cucumber-flavoured drink that has recently won listings in Tesco, says: “Consumers are looking more closely at the ingredients and calorie content of their food and drink. If they can have a product with fewer calories or a lower sugar content, which tastes as good and costs the same as a comparable product, they will go for it – but nine times out of 10 taste will win, particularly in this sector, which is usually a treat. If a retailer offers a sensible range of options it’s down to the consumer to select the most appropriate for them.”

John Mulvey, marketing manager for premium carbonates brand Cawston Press, agrees: “Ultimately ranges will self-select through consumer demand. Stores that proactively range better ingredient, less sugar-laden products will automatically be ahead of the curve as customers trade up from traditional sugary, fizzy drinks.”

“Off-licence retailers have a wealth of experience in responsible drinks retailing,” says Simon Green, marketing director at Global Brands, which distributes Kick Energy. “Our cans are clearly labelled and we take a responsible approach to marketing. While the energy drinks category has received negative press about the levels of caffeine, Kick Energy is sold in 25cl cans across the off-trade and contains 80mg of caffeine – 12mg lower than the average cup of coffee.”

Amanda Grabham, head of brand marketing at Shloer supplier SHS Drinks, stresses the importance of adult soft drinks in off-licences.

She says: “More than one in five adults do not drink alcohol and there are always going to be people who aren’t drinking alcohol on social occasions. Adult soft drinks provide a more sophisticated alternative to fruit juices, cola or water. These drinks make them feel more part of the occasion by offering something which is a bit of a treat.”

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