The European soft drinks industry has achieved progress in slashing sugar levels over the last years as part of its actions to promote healthier diets. The sector is contributing to build a healthier beverage environment in Europe through its voluntary commitments to the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices. Simultaneously, the soft drinks umbrella organization in Brussels, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe , keeps urging European policymakers to help the sector to close the loop on recycling and to have priority access to the recycled PET issued from the PET beverage bottles it places in the market and whose collection the sector finances.
1. Progress in sugar reduction
UNESDA has been encouraging European consumers towards healthier dietary habits, particularly by focusing on sugar reduction. Between 2019 and 2022, the industry reached a new milestone by managing to reduce average added sugars in its soft drinks by 7.6% — an additional reduction of 4 percentage points within just 1 year.
“These results demonstrate that we take our responsibility very seriously. We are aware of the importance of moderate consumption to support healthier dietary habits,” Nicholas Hodac, UNESDA’s Director General told Travel Tomorrow in an exclusive interview. This progress is part of the sector’s latest commitment to reduce average added sugars by a further 10% by 2025 in the EU-27 and in the UK. At this pace, UNESDA estimates to achieve a 33% reduction in average added sugars since 2000.
UNESDA’s voluntary efforts are in line with the EU Code of Conduct launched by the European Commission in July 2021, Hodac explained, which intends to create a more sustainable food system in Europe, taking into account production and consumption.
2. How is sugar reduced?
When asked how exactly the sector is reducing sugar on its beverages, Hodac said “there is no silver bullet”, instead, different methods are applied. First, food scientists focus on sugar reformulation by reducing sugar and replacing it with no- or low-calorie sweeteners. A second approach includes portion control, bringing more smaller pack sizes and slimmer cans to the market. Finally, advertising and marketing are essential to ensure that consumers are nudged towards new low- and no-calorie soft drinks.
Despite the progress in cutting sugar, Hodac explained the sector is facing a few perception challenges as some drinks that are higher in sugar have the same rating as drinks that are low in sugar but contain sweeteners, thus sending the wrong signal: “We are extremely concerned with certain labeling schemes like Nutri-Score because they do not incentivize consumers to buy low- and no-calorie soft drinks. On the contrary, they create consumer confusion.”
The public debate around no- and low-calorie sweeteners is another topic leading to consumer confusion, yet, Hodac echoed the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and other agencies in the world, which have confirmed numerous times that these sweeteners are safe for use.
3. Call for collective action
Hodac shared “mixed feelings” about the progress accomplished by the sector over the past years: “On the one hand it makes me proud to be leading an industry that takes responsibility and puts out tangible targets, on the other hand if we want to do something about obesity and creating healthier diets it doesn’t depend only on addressing sugar in soft drinks.”
For real change to happen to achieve public health outcomes, Hodac invited other key players in the food and drink industry to make the same type of commitments: “Other sectors need to pick up and take responsibility.”
4. Taking further actions to support healthier lifestyles
Over the past 15 years, UNESDA has pursued an effective Responsible Marketing Code of Conduct, in full respect of parents’ responsibility for what their children eat and drink. Since 2006, the soft drinks industry does not advertise or market any of its soft drinks to children under 12 years of age, either on TV, or in print media or online. “We have taken this a step further with our new commitment in 2021, effective on 1 January 2022,” Hodac explained, referring to the decision of increasing the restricted age to 13 across all media.
The latest results regarding the sector’s marketing and advertising commitment show high compliance rates: 98.7% on TV, 92.9% on company-owned websites, 94.1% on company-owned social media profiles, and 100% on influencer profiles. The sector will remain firmly committed to achieving full compliance.
Furthermore, for decades now, the industry has implemented robust school policies: it does not sell soft drinks in Europe’s primary school and the only soft drinks it sells at Europe’s secondary schools are low- and no-calorie. “As a father of two children, I am aware of how important the school environment is for the education of our children. There is a need to make sure that children are educated, from an early age, towards a balanced diet,” said Hodac.
UNESDA’s school commitments through the EU Code of Conduct have been implemented with great success across Europe, as demonstrated by the high levels of compliance achieved both in primary and secondary schools by UNESDA corporate members in the latest monitoring performed in Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden. Hodac explained the monitoring of the sector’s compliance is not assessed in consultancy with UNESDA members, but it is done with a third-party, independent agency that goes out and contacts schools to collect information.
“We have been using them [UK-based consultancy BVA BDRC] for monitoring for a few years. They identify a representative sample of schools in each country and in different locations in those countries so that we can have a good idea of the representative nature of the results. The list of the schools is not shared beforehand with our members,” said Hodac.
In view of the monitoring findings, Hodac said UNESDA has identified areas of non-compliance and guaranteed those will be addressed properly along the year. For example, in several cases it were actually the school teachers and staff who bring drinks into the school. “In some cases, it has been quite significant. We are going to focus on reminding them not to do it and on implementing that shared responsibility,” he maintained.
5. Enablers for real circularity
Alongside its voluntary commitments to help deliver on public health goals, the European soft drinks sector is dutifully complying with binding recycling targets to achieve circularity. On this front, the high cost of recycled PET and the current lack of a priority access right to this high-quality feedstock for recycling are the major challenges the sector is battling.
We are in a situation today in Europe, which we find totally absurd, where you pay more to achieve circularity than to stay at the status quo. Today, we still see the prices of recycled PET to be two or three times more expensive than virgin PET.Nicholas Hodac, UNESDA’s Director General
Adding to this already challengjng situation, the soft drinks sector is competing with the textile industry, the toy industry and the automotive industry for access to recycled PET coming from PET beverage bottles. “Because there is no closed loop for textiles, they use our PET bottles to make a false claim on circularity. This is something we do not appreciate and do not support,“ says Hodac.
But the problem extends beyond that. With great demand for recycled PET, the prices go up and there is not enough supply: “At the end of the day, we’re the ones who suffer more with those high prices because we are obliged to use the material,” explains Hodac.
UNESDA’s director general said the sector has been working with policymakers in the European Parliament, and he’s confident the sector’s challenges will be taken into account in the European packaging and packaging waste regulation. The major goal for the sector, Hodac says, is to create a legal system whereby businesses that have mandatory recycled content targets will have a priority access right to that feedstock.
“We are not asking for exclusivity on recycled material. We are just asking for our fair share. And give us the opportunity to purchase first, and the material that then we don’t need, can be sold to other sectors,” explains Hodac. The recognition of this loophole can be seen as an opportunity to push, and even force, those other sectors to invest in their own circularity, suggests Hodac.
Overall, the sector remains proud of the progress achieved in collection and recycling and supports a large introduction of Deposit and Return Schemes (DRS) to increase the collection and recycling of beverage packaging. By 2025-2026, almost 19 or 20 countries in Europe will have a DRS. So far, the existing DRS around Europe have proven that it’s possible to achieve above 90% collection and in a dedicated clean stream, to eliminate contamination from other materials or sources and help the sector recycle its beverage packaging into new beverage packaging in a closed-loop system.